Democrats rally behind their 'mom in tennis shoes,' Sen. Patty Murray

Sen. Patty Murray of Washington is facing a strong challenge from GOP candidate Dino Rossi. Top Democrats from Michelle Obama to former President Bill Clinton have vowed to help.

Carolyn Kaster/AP/file
President Obama and Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington take part in a roundtable discussion with small business owners at Grand Central Bakery in Seattle on Aug. 17.
Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review/AP
Candidate for US Senate Dino Rossi is introduced at a meeting of the National Federation of Independent Businesses at the Davenport Hotel in Spokane, Wash., on Sept. 20.

Sen. Patty Murray knows what an uphill fight is like. Running for her local school board years ago, the Washington State Democrat adopted the jibe of a political opponent: “Just a mom in tennis shoes.”

Sen. Murray parlayed that local post into success in the state Senate and then three terms in the US Senate – she won her last reelection by a very comfortable 12 percentage points – and her fourth-ranking position among the Senate’s Democratic leadership.

But today, Murray – five feet tall in those tennis shoes – is running hard against tough GOP opponent Dino Rossi in a region of the country where moderate Republicans have done very well in the past.

IN PICTURES: Notable women in US politics

The race is too close to call. And at a time when the "tea party" movement is upsetting the conventional political apple cart for both parties, Mr. Rossi easily beat the tea party favorite – former pro football player Clint Didier, who won just 13 percent of the vote in Washington State’s “jungle primary” in which candidates from all parties run against each other but only the top two are on the November ballot.

Rossi is a realtor, former state senator, and twice-failed candidate for governor. But he is well-known statewide. In 2004, he lost the governor’s race to Democrat Christine Gregoire by just 133 votes after two recounts.

Rossi charges that “record deficits, high unemployment, and massive debt are the result of Senator Murray’s 18 years in Washington.” He’s also been hammering Murray for bringing special help to the state through earmarks. She was No. 12 on the top 20 list of earmarkers, according to the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Murray, who is on the Senate Appropriations Committee, doesn’t apologize for the hundreds of millions of dollars she’s helped bring to Washington State over the years.

"You go back to Washington, D.C., with 99 other senators and convince them what's important for your state," she told McClatchy Newspapers recently. That may, in fact, be one reason why she’s enjoyed relatively high favorability ratings among constituents.

Just two weeks ago, Murray was leading Rossi by 9 percentage points in a CNN/Time/Opinion Research Corporation survey. Like many states, the Democrat was leading in urban areas – particularly around Seattle – while Rossi led in the rest of the state.

But a poll conducted this past weekend by Pulse Opinion Research for Fox News had Murray’s lead slipping to just one point (48 to 47), well within the 3 percent margin of error. The projected vote on the FiveThirtyEight blog, which forecasts based on an analysis of all available polls, is 51 to 47 for Murray.

Other survey questions on the Pulse poll indicate voters’ mood as the election approaches. Asked whether they would rather have bigger government that provides more services or smaller government that provides fewer services, those surveyed went solidly for small government (55 to 33 percent).

But the contrast with Delaware – where tea party favorite Christine O’Donnell bucked her party’s establishment in beating moderate congressman and former governor Mike Castle to become the GOP’s Senate nominee – couldn’t be sharper.

In a state and region that is moderate-to-liberal, Rossi is playing it cool regarding the political insurgency that’s been sweeping the country. He avoided some tea party events before the August primary, and he has not sought the help of Mr. Didier (who so far has withheld his endorsement of Rossi).

Both parties see this as a key race: Republicans because they see Murray as increasingly vulnerable, and Democrats for the same reason. Which party controls the Senate could be at stake. National Republicans like to point out that Murray won less than half the vote in the open primary. (She got 46 percent of the vote with Rossi winning 33 percent and Didier 13 percent.)

With Murray in an extremely tight race, the Democratic Party is rolling out its big guns. President Obama embraced her at a fundraiser in Seattle last month. Next month, former President Bill Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden, and first lady Michelle Obama will fly to Washington State to cheerlead for Murray as well.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) originally budgeted $515,000 for Washington State, but recently boosted Rossi’s war chest by another $2 million.

“The $2.5 million reservation reflects the opportunity the NRSC sees in Washington against [Murray], who has been in office since 1992 and has never run in an election cycle so favorable for Republicans,” the political newspaper Roll Call reported. “Rossi is a top-tier candidate and comes with higher name identification than most challengers do.”

In its fundraising website for Rossi, the NRSC tweaks Murray’s image. It shows a pair of tennis shoes covered with mud.

IN PICTURES: Notable women in US politics

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