Slow-down offense: Can Gregoire hang on to win governor's mansion?
OLYMPIA, WA-- When Christine Gregoire bounded onto the stage one year ago, dancing like mad to the strains of "Louie Louie" and promising to be a leader of bold purpose and vision, her fervent backers breathed a contented sigh.
The governor-in-waiting was here at last.
But one year later, they're still waiting for gutsy, risk-taking ideas and a courageous and concrete agenda from the woman who slew the "tobacco dragon" and assorted evildoers as a fearless three-term attorney general.
Strategists and critics say she seems to be running out the clock, sitting on her lead in the polls and waging a safe and generic centrist campaign.
Meanwhile, Mr. Shake-em Up, Ron Sims, is getting most of the media attention with a left-of-center crusade he describes as "spunky and feisty and bold." When Gregoire gets noticed these days, it usually deals with her Achilles' heel -- a missed appeal that cost taxpayers $18 million -- and related fallout stories that keep the 4-year-old story alive.
Still, Gregoire remains ahead in the polls and in fund-raising and is widely expected to win the Democratic nomination Sept. 14 -- and quite possibly the governor's mansion in November. She'd be only the second woman governor in state history.
But one strategist, Republican Dave Mortenson, says Gregoire is underestimating Sims and the impact of the new closed primary. Her low-key, centrist campaign could cost her the nomination, he says.
"They could be risking it all by saving everything for the general election," he says. "I haven't seen much of a campaign from her. They're being cautious. Will it work? We don't know."
Gregoire and her campaign team, quietly confident, scoff at the criticism that she's being vague, dining on platitudes -- or purposely ignoring Sims and the primary. Gregoire says she's more specific and imaginative than either of her rivals -- and insists she's running an all-out campaign and not laying in the weeds or ducking controversy.
The campaign is centrist because she's centrist, she says with a shrug.
"I've always been a fiscal conservative and a social progressive," she says.
With a jut of the jaw, she says she won't tack left or be a different candidate in the primary than she would be in the general election.
"I'm being me. I'm not going to come up with something that's not who I am."
The center line
Gregoire kicked off her campaign a year ago with stops in five cities, vowing to be a "tough fighter" for Washington families.
Using a pugnacious theme of leadership, she said she's earned her spurs by fighting the tobacco industry, kiddie porn, schoolyard bullying, unscrupulous businesses and even Uncle Sam himself as an activist three-term attorney general.
Even though she had to scramble to put together a campaign bid when Gov. Gary Locke surprised many by announcing his retirement last summer, Gregoire came up with the same platform she's using today: jobs and the economy, education, health care and the environment. (Nearly every candidate is using a similar list from Cookie Cutters R Us.)
Along the way, she has released thick position papers on education and jobs. Reports on environment and health care are due out soon. You will be tested.
As a business-oriented New Democrat, her thoughts are relentlessly middle of the road and not intended to spell higher taxes. (As testament to her status as a well-liked front-runner and the bandwagon effect of backing a perceived winner, Gregoire was endorsed by the Washington Education Association despite opposing higher revenue, a state income tax and a sales-tax increase for education -- all positions Sims espoused).
'Squishy and bland'?
Despite her protestations, rivals and some analysts see her agenda as a no-brainer, embracing ideas no one could oppose, but punting on the very real question of how the Legislature and new governor will deal with a billion-dollar shortfall this winter and still expand education, health care and the rest.
Her rivals, Sims and Republican Dino Rossi, say she's getting away with murder.
"She's being incredibly nonspecific and squishy and bland," says Mary Lane, Rossi's spokeswoman. "You get the feeling she is just trying to avoid risk and just coast to election day."
Republican Chairman Chris Vance grumps that Gregoire and other centrist Democrats have nothing to say. "It's all generalities and platitudes and happy talk -- and hoping that Republicans will self-destruct."
Sims piles on. "She's just not gonna rock the boat -- no bold initiatives from her. No question that's her strategy. Everybody wants quality schools, jobs, a clean environment. The question is, how are you going to make that happen? She gives us promises you can't keep."
Gregoire bristles right back, saying she doesn't find it a virtue to be specific like Sims is specific -- dangling the prospect of an income tax, when that's not going to happen, and a tax increase, which is not a good idea.
"I don't call it bold or leadership to have an idea that is dead on arrival," she says.
No ordinary primary?
Gregoire's centrist appeal and her apparent decision to start running a general election campaign from the get-go are reminiscent of Locke's winning strategy in 1996. But there's one big difference: this year, for the first time in 70 years, only self-identified Democrats will be voting in the primary. Sims is going for those party activists.
The independents, pro-choice "soccer moms" and liberal Republicans that Gregoire counts on for victory in November won't be voting in the Sims-Gregoire primary unless they confine themselves to a Democratic ballot.
"This isn't an ordinary primary year," Mortenson says. "A small, select group of hardcore partisans will play the game. She doesn't get the game."
But Gregoire's campaign director, Tim Zenk, says Gregoire fully understands the big change in the primary dynamics and, contrary to critics, isn't looking past the primary or just assuming her nomination.
"People try to portray our party as a bunch of extremists, but we're a pretty moderate party," Zenk says. "People aren't all that enthused about the tax increases Ron Sims is thinking about."
"We believe that nearly 60 percent of the Democratic primary vote will be women, so we have a gender gap in our favor. And our party wants a winner in November."
Independent pollster Stuart Elway and Democratic strategist Terry Thompson say Gregoire appears to have enough of a poll lead to hug the middle line and run a cautious campaign. Sims is the one who has to move left and take risks, Thompson says.
"This primary is new territory, but if you're Chris Gregoire, you don't want to be pulled too far to the left," Elway says. "We like electing centrists in this state, but they're typically not the most interesting people in the field."
Bits and pieces
-Battlestar Washington. The state already is declared a battleground for the White House, governor's race and U.S. Senate. Now add the race for control of the Legislature. The National Conference of State Legislatures, quoted in Stateline.org, calls the Evergreen State one of the 10 states with volatile majorities. Republicans currently have 25 Senate seats to the Democrats' 24. Democrats control the House by three seats.
-Where's Dino? State Democrats accused Republican gubernatorial contender Dino Rossi of ducking debates, calling him a no show at a Tacoma forum this week. Rossi spokeswoman Mary Lane says the Ds' "nastygram" was wrong. Her guy was victim of a scheduling mix-up and welcomes joint appearances, she says.
-EMILY for Senn. Democrat Deborah Senn, already well known from her three statewide races for insurance commissioner and the U.S. Senate, got a lift this week when EMILY's List endorsed her bid for attorney general. The group is the largest national backer of women candidates who support abortion rights. The endorsement could mean big bucks.
-But seriously. Comic and author Al Franken, an old Harvard chum of Senn's Democratic rival, Mark Sidran, has mailed out an endorsement letter. He praises Sidran's Three E's -- experience, integrity and energy. "Wait. Scrap integrity," he writes, quickly adding, "Although Mark has it in spades, it does not start with an E. I remember learning that at Harvard."
David Ammons is the AP's state political writer and has covered the statehouse since 1971. He can be reached at P.O. Box 607, Olympia, WA 98507, or at email@example.com on the Internet.
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