Washington among tight governor's races

GOP tries to regain control in a state that hasn't seen a Republican governor in 20 years as jobs dominate issues.

While President Bush and Senator Kerry battle it out in a down-to-the-wire fight for the White House, governors and would-be governors are neck and neck as well.

Incumbents have withdrawn or been bounced by their parties when it became obvious they'd lost party support. Other incumbents are having to scramble like challengers. Contestants with politically powerful family names or high-level national experience are part of the mix.

Of the 11 gubernatorial races this year, nonpartisan political analyst Charles Cook calls six of them tossups. Four of those six (Missouri, Montana, Utah, and Washington) are in states with no incumbent running - always a formula for volatility, especially at a time when Americans are split over issues such as war and terrorism and yearn for stability.

If the economy is a pivotal issue in the presidential race, it's even more so for those seeking to become their states' chief executives. "Everyone's running on jobs, everyone's running on the economy," says Cathy Allen, a political consultant in Seattle.

That's a big factor here in Washington State, where unemployment remains above the national average, thanks to things like the dotcom bust and Boeing's decision to move its corporate headquarters out of state.

Republican Dino Rossi, a realtor and former state senator, vows to reduce government regulation and invest in economic development. After nearly 20 years without a Republican governor, he says, it's time for a change.

Democrat Christine Gregoire has a trickier challenge: She can't run on the banner of change, following the term of retiring incumbent Gary Locke (a popular moderate Democrat), and as state attorney general for the past 12 years she's no outsider.

Still, the state's economy is recovering. And like most states with close races, other factors may be more important.

Mr. Rossi portrays himself as a moderate; his opponents emphasize his past pronouncements on hot-button social issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and creationism. Ms. Gregoire reminds voters that she negotiated the 46-state, $206 billion settlement with the tobacco industry, which brought her state $45 billion; others point to million-dollar mistakes she acknowledges having been responsible for as attorney general.

In the presidential contest, the Bush-Cheney campaign seems to have conceded the race for Washington State's 11 electoral votes. The GOP has diverted its efforts to states considered to be in play - like nearby Oregon.

At the same time, the Evergreen State is more obviously than ever one of the most politically progressive parts of the country. And like other parts of the country, the presidential race has consequences for statewide races - if only because it affects voter registration and turnout.

Until recently when Washington state primaries began requiring voters to declare a party preference, half the voters here identified themselves as independents. Now, half say they're Democrats - markedly higher than the country as a whole. Some 350,000 new voters have been registered here in recent months, and state officials predict as many as 84 percent of those eligible will vote.

John Kerry leads George Bush by 14 percentage points here, reflecting the fact that it's a fairly blue state. Yet political wizard Charles Cook says Washington's gubernatorial race is too close to call. And like the presidential race, much of the campaigning has been aggressive. That includes the effort by US Rep. George Nethercutt (R) to oust two-term US Sen. Patty Murray (D).

"This is turning into a very partisan election, much more than we're used to in Washington," says independent Seattle pollster Stuart Elway. Much of this is tied to the top of the ticket, which has the effect of exaggerating the differences between the eastern part of the state (largely agricultural and conservative) and the more populous high-tech, largely liberal I-5 corridor that includes Seattle, Tacoma, and the state capital of Olympia.

"Democrats in particular on the west side [of the state] are just incensed with the war in Iraq and are very anti-Bush," says political scientist Lance LeLoup at Washington State University.

Still, while Gregoire leads by about five points in last-minute polling, analysts aren't ruling out an upset. Pollster Elway describes the race as "volatile," and Dr. LeLoup calls Rossi "one of the most attractive and articulate candidates the Republicans have put up in years."

Both of the state's largest newspapers have endorsed Democrats Kerry for president and Murray for reelection to the US Senate. But they parted ways on the governor's race - The Seattle Times for Rossi and The Seattle Post-Intelligencer for Ms. Gregoire.

If elections turn out the way the polls here indicate, Washington State will make political history.

It will be the first state in which the top-three elected officials - the governor and both United States Senators - are women. That would be an important historical footnote, but also one in keeping with the state's track record. Seattle was the first big city to have a woman mayor (Bertha Landes back in the 1920s), women have been in the state legislature for 108 years, and women were voting here before national suffrage. Today, they number nearly 40 percent of the state legislature and five of the nine state supreme court justices.

As Seattle-based political consultant Cathy Allen says, "Washington State is very good to its women candidates."

Battles for the governor's mansion

Delaware - Incumbent Ruth Ann Minner (D) faces former state supreme court justice Bill Lee (R).

Indiana - Incumbent Joseph Kernan (D) faces challenger Mitch Daniels, former Bush White House budget director.

Missouri - State Auditor Claire McCaskill (who beat Democratic incumbent Bob Holden in the primary election) is opposed by Secretary of State Matt Blunt, whose father Roy Blunt (R) is Majority Whip in the US House of Representatives.

Montana - When GOP incumbent Judy Martz declined to run again, Secretary of State Bob Brown won a five-way primary election. He faces rancher Brian Schweitzer (D), who hopes to appeal to Montana conservatives by having chosen a Republican state senator as his running mate.

New Hampshire - Republican incumbent Craig Benson faces a stiff challenge from businessman John Lynch, the Democratic nominee.

North Carolina - State Senate GOP leader Patrick Ballantine is trying to unseat Governor Mike Easley (D).

North Dakota - GOP incumbent John Hoeven faces businessman and former state senator Joe Satrom (D).

Utah - Republicans rejected Lt. Gov. Olene Walker (who succeeded incumbent Mike Leavitt when Mr. Leavitt became head of the US Environmental Protection Agency last year) in favor of former ambassador and family business heir Jon Huntsman Jr. He faces University of Utah Law School Dean Scott Matheson Jr. (D), son of a former governor and brother of US Representative Jim Matheson.

Vermont - Burlington Mayor Peter Clavelle (who recently changed his party registration from Progressive to Democrat) is challenging incumbent Jim Douglas (R).

West Virginia - Secretary of State Joe Manchin (D) is running against real-estate developer Monty Warner (R).

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