Tuesday's Senate primary election in Washington state has become more like a warm-up bout for the top Democratic and Republican candidates, who have already penciled in a rematch in the November main event.
With the state's quirky nonpartisan primary format that allows only the top two vote-getters to advance regardless of party, veteran Democratic incumbent Sen. Patty Murray will almost certainly face GOP favorite Dino Rossi, a former state senator considered the party's best hope, once again in the general election.
"At this point, it's a beauty contest" for Mr. Rossi, said Don Benton, a fellow Republican state lawmaker who quit the Senate primary contest after Mr. Rossi jumped in late in the spring.
"There's no reason to spend money to speak of when you're in front," said Mr. Benton. "Dino's well-known enough. But after [the primary], you have to be more aggressive to beat an incumbent."
A year ago, few predicted that Mrs. Murray, the one time "mom in tennis shoes" now seeking her fourth term in the Senate, would have a particularly difficult time. But with the polls tightening and talk of a national "wave election" mounting, the fortunes of Democratic incumbents like Mrs. Murray and Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold could determine the scale of the Republican gains in the midterm elections.
Washington is one of two states holding primaries Tuesday, along with Wyoming.
Washington Republicans have targeted Mrs. Murray for defeat long before they finally coaxed Mr. Rossi into the race in mid-May.
"We've been working to hold Mrs. Murray accountable for the past 18 years," said Brian Walsh of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Most polls have shown a close race from the start, with Mr. Rossi now trailing by roughly 4 percentage points, according to an average of polls by Real Clear Politics. That's half the margin Mrs. Murray, 60, had when Mr. Rossi declared his candidacy.
A SurveyUSA poll released last week found 41 percent of likely voters plan to vote for Mrs. Murray and 33 percent support for Mr. Rossi on Tuesday. Most forecasters put the seat in the "leans Democratic" category for November.
Although still expected to easily qualify for the November ballot, Mr. Rossi's path to the GOP nomination has not been smooth.
Former NFL player and alfalfa farmer Clint Didier, a "tea party"-backed fiscal conservative who received a surprise endorsement from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, refused to quit the primary and is favored by 11 percent of likely voters in Tuesday's vote, according to the SurveyUSA poll.
Didier spokeswoman Kathryn Serkes argues that the poll understates her candidate's support, in a year in which party establishment-backed candidates have been upset in a number of GOP primary contests.
"Sarah Palin stands firm. She's making get-out-the-vote calls," Ms. Serkes said. "If Clint Didier is not the other candidate in the primary, Patty Murray is going to win because nobody else can deliver the grass-roots, independent and conservative vote."
Ms. Serkes said an upset is entirely possible because early returns show residents are holding onto the ballots until the last possible moment. With the exception of one county, the statewide primary is being conducted by mail-in vote.
Washington state political analysts say challenges from Mr. Didier and other conservative Republicans have pushed Mr. Rossi to shore up his right flank in recent weeks - a move that may complicate his efforts to attract the state's large centrist voting bloc in November.
Mr. Rossi in recent weeks has called for repeal of President Obama's health care and financial regulatory laws and trumpeted endorsements from conservative groups such as the Family Research Council and FreedomWorks. Influential Senate conservatives, including South Carolina's Jim DeMint and Oklahoma's Tom Coburn, have endorsed his candidacy.
Mrs. Murray - who is likely to have far more money to spend than her Republican rival this fall - has already aired an attack ad on Mr. Rossi's position on the banking bill.
"Dino Rossi is taking an extreme position in his effort to curry favor with the far right," Murray spokeswoman Julie Edwards told the Associated Press late last week. "This is the real Dino Rossi."
But one of Mrs. Murray's trump cards - her clout on the Senate Appropriations Committee in winning federal dollars for her home state - has proven a problematic asset in 2010. Mr. Benton said state Republicans will try to tie her to unpopular parts of the Obama administration agenda, but the real focus should be on her congressional record.
"All those years of leadership and no significant legislation on her resume?" he noted. "That should be hammered on."
Mr. Rossi, 50, has twice run for Washington governor. He lost to Democrat Christine Gregoire in 2004 by the smallest percentage margin in the history of U.S. gubernatorial races - 129 votes in an election where more than 2.8 million ballots were cast - and lost a rematch in 2008 by 6 percentage points.
He raised $1.4 million over roughly his first five weeks in the race and has $1.3 million cash on hand. But Mrs. Murray has raised $7.4 million with $3.2 million on hand, according to the most recent federal filings.
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