- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 28, 2008

SEATTLE — Like many of this year’s candidates, gubernatorial hopeful Dino Rossi is running on a message of change aimed at voters dissatisfied with the political status quo.

The difference is, Mr. Rossi is a Republican, and the status quo he’s trying to change is Washington state’s culture of Democratic rule.

“We’ve got to have change,” Mr. Rossi said. “We’ve had the same people in the state Capitol for a lot of years now smoking each other’s exhaust.”

A former state senator, Mr. Rossi is locked in a dead heat with Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire in a rematch of their tight 2004 battle. That year, Mrs. Gregoire was declared the victor after three recounts left her with a 133-vote margin of victory.

This year’s race gives the Republican Party one of its two best opportunities nationwide to oust an incumbent Democratic governor. Bucking the national tide, Washington Republicans also are poised to pick up a few seats in the state Legislature, thanks largely to Mr. Rossi’s coattails. Democrats control both houses by double-digit margins.

“I’m predicting we will gain seats in the Legislature this year, and obviously that has a lot to do with our gubernatorial candidate,” said state Republican Party Chairman Luke Esser. “We’re very pleased with the Rossi effect here in the state of Washington.”

Mr. Rossi, 48, has focused his campaign on the state’s projected $3.2 billion budget deficit, pounding home the point that Mrs. Gregoire broke the bank with an expensive to-do list despite the warnings of her own economic advisers.

State spending has jumped by roughly a third during her four-year term. At the same time, Mrs. Gregoire and legislative Democrats raised taxes by more than $400 million.

Despite that, Mrs. Gregoire, 61, argues that the state in fact enjoys a budget surplus at the moment. The deficit projection doesn’t kick in until July 2009, but she says her spending cuts, including a hiring freeze on some state jobs, will hold it at bay.

“She’s already made changes to reduce the budget by 50 percent,” said her spokesman, Aaron Toso. “The cuts she’s made will help maintain the surplus.”

Not everyone buys it. The Seattle Times, the state’s largest newspaper and one that has supported Mrs. Gregoire in the past, endorsed Mr. Rossi in an Oct. 19 editorial, citing his budget-cutting prowess during his years as a state senator.

In 2003, he worked with Democratic Gov. Gary Locke to craft a balanced budget without raising major taxes. Mrs. Gregoire may call for spending cuts, the editorial said, but “how hard will she lean against the public-employee unions, which now support her re-election?”

“Rossi doesn’t have those problems. When he says he’ll cut spending, you can believe him, because he has done it, and because he represents a constituency that wants it done,” the editorial said.

Mrs. Gregoire argues that Mr. Rossi hasn’t spelled out where he plans to make those cuts. “[He’s] given us no details on any plans for future cuts,” she said during their Oct. 15 debate. “He has no plans except to increase the budget deficit to $4.5 million.”

In a new twist Monday, a judge said that Mr. Rossi must give a deposition before Election Day as part of a lawsuit claiming illegal campaign spending by his biggest backer.

With Mr. Rossi pushing an agenda of change, however, Mrs. Gregoire has had to battle to keep pro-Barack Obama Democrats from defecting to his campaign. His appeal to Democratic voters, who call themselves “Dinocrats,” has led to the curious specter of front lawns festooned with both Rossi and Obama campaign signs.

“There’s a certain logic to it,” Mr. Esser said. “If someone’s convinced things are messed up in both Washington, D.C., and Olympia, then they’re going to be inclined to vote for change, and that means Barack Obama and Dino Rossi.”

Democrats have held the Washington governor’s seat for 24 years, the longest state governorship drought for Republicans in the nation. “I’m hoping to hand the baton to Oregon this year,” Mr. Esser said.

Nationally, Democrats hold 28 governorships to Republicans´ 22. In the other nine races this year, incumbents are expected to easily hold their offices. The other tight race is in Missouri, where Republican Rep. Kenny Hulshof is slightly behind Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon in the race to replace retiring Gov. Matt Blunt, a Republican.

The Gregoire campaign has tried to counter the change message with a rash of campaign spots linking Mr. Rossi to President Bush, hardly a popular figure in deep-blue Washington.

“In tough times like these, the last thing we need is a George Bush Republican like Dino Rossi,” one ad intones.

The Gregoire campaign insisted that she’s not losing Democrats. “Those voters are mostly Republicans moving over to support Barack Obama,” Mr. Toso said. “There are going to be a lot more Obama-Gregoire voters.”

She reinforced that message last week in an appearance with Sen. Joseph R. Biden, Jr., the Republican vice-presidential pick, who stopped here briefly to campaign last week even though the Democratic presidential ticket is leading by 15 points.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which has endorsed Mrs. Gregoire, last week scolded the would-be ticket splitters.

“So we’ve been hearing about voters who say they’re set to vote for Barack Obama for president and Dino Rossi for governor. What? This is not a split ticket that would promote effectivegovernment,” the Oct. 21 editorial said. “A President Obama and Gov. Gregoire are stronger together.”

For his part, Mr. Rossi has tried to remain scrupulously bipartisan, pointing out that a Republican governor would have to maintain good relations with the Democratic Legislature in order to resolve the budget crisis.

“I’m seeking out a philosophical majority versus a partisan majority based on fiscal conservatism,” Mr. Rossi said. “We want to work with anyone in the state who wants to turn this thing around. This thing is too big for one party to solve.”

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