Linda Lingle grew up in a staunchly Democratic family in St. Louis. Her first job in Hawaii was to publish a union newspaper on the island of Molokai. So it's more than a little ironic that the Maui mayor is now the best chance for Hawaii's Republicans to capture the governor's mansion in 36 years.
An upstart politician who rose to prominence first as a Maui County councilwoman and then as a popular two-term mayor, Mayor Lingle is part of the new breed of moderate women Republicans - like New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman - who have gained visibility with election triumphs in recent years. And like her mainland counterparts, Lingle is focusing her campaign on voters' pocketbooks.
The big issue: Hawaii's prolonged economic slump. After years of prosperity, Hawaii has seen its fortunes turn as the financial crisis in Asia deepens. And with citizens seemingly willing to part from their liberal roots for the promise of improvement, incumbent Gov. Ben Cayetano (D) looks vulnerable. Indeed, conditions have never been better for a Republican run.
"This is the first time in the history of Hawaii as a state that the Democratic incumbent has sought reelection on a bad economy," says Dan Boylan, a political scientist at University of Hawaii-West Oahu. "Prior to this time, since statehood we have always been in a growth mode."
Lingle, who announced her candidacy last week, is planning to use the economic malaise here to her advantage. As a fiscal conservative with centrist social leanings, Lingle has won accolades for her management of Maui. Out of the state's four counties, Maui has fared the best during the slump and is the most fiscally sound.
"During the last five out of six years, Maui County has gained jobs," notes Lingle. "But during the past five out of six years, the state as a whole has lost jobs. That's not a coincidence."
It is not without some reason that she claims credit for Maui's relatively good fortunes. She has gained the support of both businesspeople and unions, Maui Democrats and Republicans, and garnered Maui a reputation as the state's most progressive, business-friendly county.
Still, Lingle has a rough road ahead. For the past three decades, Democrats dominated Hawaii politics as nowhere else in the country: Hawaii's last Republican governor dates back to 1962. In addition, no candidate from outside Oahu has ever won a gubernatorial race, and Hawaii has never elected a female governor.
But most of all, Lingle lacks money. Governor Cayetano has amassed a war chest of more than $2 million - more than five times larger than Lingle's. "She is going to have to spend money to improve her name recognition. But [her] money is not going to be coming from this state. It will be out-of-state money and it will be despised," says Hawaii political analyst Robert Dye.
Lingle acknowledges she will not likely match Cayetano's coffers but downplays the difference. "This election will not be won by who has the most money," she says. "It will be won by ideas."
Her agenda is to fix a laundry list of Democratic failures: Reform Hawaii's generous welfare system, improve Hawaii's abysmal public-education system, and change a tax scheme that has long been a thorn in the side of business.
So far, polls show Lingle ahead of Cayetano. But polls have often been wrong before, and observers note that Cayetano has been preoccupied with a contentious legislative session. "The session is just ending and Governor Cayetano's message is going to start to come out," says Richard Humphreys, a co-chair of Cayetano's campaign. "The governor has not yet begun to fight."
But for that matter, Lingle says she's just beginning, too. "I feel I have six months of hard work ahead of me to communicate to the public what I would do to get the state out of this economic situation," she says.