- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 23, 2008

OLYMPIA, Wash.

She’s an experienced Democrat in an increasingly “blue” state, with voters who love to elect women and seem likely to support Sen. Barack Obama for president.

But instead of coasting to a second term as Washington’s governor, Christine Gregoire once again finds herself in a bare-knuckles brawl for her political life.

Nearly four years after she squeaked through the closest governor’s election in American history, Mrs. Gregoire is running almost even with her opponent and fighting some national headwinds, a government lifer in an election dominated by calls for change.

But as Mrs. Gregoire emerges from a too-close-for-comfort primary, she’s hinting at her vision for Washington’s future - a somewhat late, but necessary move in a campaign cycle that seems defined by candidates’ views of the future.

Mrs. Gregoire’s scrappy side may be coming out as well. A tough negotiator who built a career facing down foes like Big Tobacco, she appears to be sending more firepower at her rematch opponent, Republican former state Sen. Dino Rossi.

In a recent Associated Press interview, Mrs. Gregoire said Mr. Rossi is bristling with attacks, but offers virtually no specific plans for how he’d run the state - a criticism that could resonate against Mr. Rossi’s heavily broad-strokes campaign message.

Mr. Rossi “doesn’t answer questions, doesn’t tell us what his position is on a lot of things, and doesn’t have any concrete points about what he’s going to do about any of the pressing issues facing the state,” Mrs. Gregoire said.

“I mean, there’s nothing there,” she added.

If Mrs. Gregoire can knock some of the shine off of Mr. Rossi’s charismatic, vision-thing candidacy without getting too muddy, she could pull out of the currently tight race and sew up a second term.

Summer’s over, and the voters are listening. She’s got just six weeks.

Mrs. Gregoire’s resume for the job is certainly strong. A former state ecology director, she was elected to three terms as state attorney general before leaping at the chance to succeed one of her mentors, former Democratic Gov. Gary Locke.

Mr. Rossi has worked hard, however, to make that lengthy government background a liability.

“I’m running against someone who has been in state government for 40 years now,” Mr. Rossi said. “That doesn’t make her evil or bad. It just gives her a very narrow, Olympia-centric view of the world.”

Mrs. Gregoire’s supporters counter that when voters weigh Mrs. Gregoire’s substance against Mr. Rossi’s, they’ll turn to the Democrat. They look for the campaign’s roster of debates to put those differences on display.

“People will see that substance actually matters,” Democratic political strategist Cathy Allen said. “She’s not making it up as she goes. This woman knows the state. She knows how to run it.”

Mrs. Gregoire’s agenda has often focused on the big picture - a 20-year cleanup plan for Puget Sound, a 16-year financing package for road construction, total health coverage for children in a decade, long-awaited rights and benefits for gay couples.

But the governor and her Democratic allies in the Legislature also have faltered by putting off decisions on some difficult and expensive projects, including the Alaskan Way Viaduct and 520 bridge, paid family leave, expanded health care and sales-tax relief for the poor.

That’s given Mr. Rossi an opening, and it’s his main campaign message: Mrs. Gregoire and the Democrats have spent us into a deficit, without delivering enough tangible results.

On the budget, he does have a point. State spending has risen by about a third since Mrs. Gregoire took office, and nonpartisan Senate analysts are predicting a budget shortfall of more than $3 billion in the next fiscal year.

Mrs. Gregoire has generally dodged questions about the deficit projection by saying those estimates can change dramatically. She’s also seemed to be playing a little fast and loose on the stump by implying, incorrectly, that tax increases on her watch have been limited to a reinstatement of Washington’s estate tax.

In reality, she and legislative Democrats enacted more than $400 million in taxes on cigarettes, liquor and product warranties, along with a 9.5 cent gas-tax increase that was subsequently approved by voters.

But the governor also suggests that, for her next budget, she’s looking toward a no-new-taxes plan that focuses on belt-tightening.

Mrs. Gregoire told the AP she’s preparing for possible deficits that could be worse than the latest projections and said she won’t be shy about slowing the rollout of some favorite Democratic programs from the past few years.

“We’re not going to turn back” by eliminating those projects, Mrs. Gregoire said. “We’re just not going to do it when we thought we would.”

At this point, the conventional wisdom seems to hold that Mrs. Gregoire will win - in spite of her weaknesses, and Mr. Rossi’s strengths.

She’s too often only an adequate campaigner - combative or endlessly detailed on the stump - especially when lined up next to Mr. Rossi, who’s a born salesman.

But Washington has long been a state where the “safe” vote is for the Brand X Democrat, notwithstanding an independent streak that occasionally rejects too much consolidated power.

The national mood is sour, with a continuing economic implosion and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dominating the outlook.

Mr. Obama has been the presidential favorite here, and he jazzes up the liberal base - a crowd that Mrs. Gregoire, far more Olympia than Seattle, could have done better with four years ago.

“This race is still up for grabs,” Washington State University political scientist Lance LeLoup said. “I think she really needs to seal the deal and really make the case with state voters - both on her record as governor and on her differences with her Republican challenger.”

For the near future, look for Mrs. Gregoire to switch from emphasizing her record to talking about her vision. Defining Mr. Rossi appears to be on the menu as well.

One of her latest ads offers a good preview: Without mentioning his name, Mrs. Gregoire ties Mr. Rossi and the nation’s economic woes to the deeply unpopular Bush administration. She pledges to weather tough economic times without hurting the helpless.

The walk-off image: Mrs. Gregoire hard at work at her desk, with a “Hate Free Zone” plaque in the foreground, a subliminal nod to social liberals.

The message: Dedicated, compassionate, steady - and definitely a Democrat.

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