Presidential Politics Overshadows Rise Of State-Level Stars - Dino Rossi of Washington State and Barack Obama of Illinois examples of politicians 'breaking the mold'

Wall Street Journal

March 31, 2004; Page A4

WASHINGTON -- Barack Obama is a Third Culture Kid -- born in Hawaii of a Kenyan father and white American mother, raised in Indonesia, educated in New York and Cambridge, Mass. Now he's favored to win a Senate seat in Illinois.

Dino Rossi sells commercial real estate, work that blends seamlessly into the Chamber of Commerce brand of Republican politics. In a state with few Italians and Catholics, the son of a grade-school teacher and beautician doesn't blend in altogether. Which is good for his hopes to become governor of Washington state.

Odds are you haven't heard of Mr. Obama, a 42-year-old Democrat, or Mr. Rossi, a 44-year-old Republican, above the truculent din of the Kerry and Bush campaigns. But both genial politicians, breaking molds, are candidates that could make a mark on their states, and perhaps the nation.

Every four years, the focus on presidential politics obscures the rise of new talents. Twenty years ago a mentor of Mr. Obama's, Paul Simon, won an Illinois Senate seat as Ronald Reagan won a second term; by 1988 Mr. Simon was running for president himself. Twenty years before that, amid Lyndon Johnson's landslide, Dan Evans won what became Washington's last successful Republican governorship.

Today the ebullient Mr. Rossi seeks to reverse the failures of Republican predecessors -- including a local Rush Limbaugh-type who opposed affirmative action, and a conservative Christian who touted privatization of state universities. He is focusing on the job crunch that has left Washington, once a high-tech highflier, with one of the nation's highest unemployment rates.

"Folks in my neighborhood are unemployed for the first time in their adult lives," says Mr. Rossi, who quit his state Senate seat in suburban Seattle to make the race. He is conventionally conservative on social issues like abortion and gay marriage but doesn't emphasize them. "I'm not running for Supreme Court," he says.

Instead, Mr. Rossi brandishes a record of working with outgoing Democratic Gov. Gary Locke to close a $2.7 billion state budget gap last year, and visits unfriendly audiences such as organized labor to take the edge off partisan polarization. George W. Bush's pledge to work across party lines on a "compassionate conservative" agenda is his most spectacular failure. Mr. Rossi calls himself "a fiscal conservative with a social conscience" and vows not to stop working with Democrats in his evenly divided state.

Mr. Obama breaks the mold simply by running. Only two blacks have been elected to the Senate in the past 100 years; neither had an African surname. He embodies America's diversity -- "you get my family together, we look like the United Nations" -- but he is much more. He campaigns with the passion of an innercity organizer, the intellect of a University of Chicago professor who edited the Harvard Law Review, and the stride of a college basketball player. Considering Mr. Obama's background, it's no wonder media consultant David Axelrod raves that he is every bit "the whole package" as another talented 2004 client, presidential contender John Edwards.

Mr. Obama, who ran well among whites and blacks in his primary victory, flavors orthodox Democratic liberalism with support for welfare reform, charter schools and an overhauled death penalty. Like Mr. Rossi, he has worked smoothly with partisan adversaries as a state senator.

But his message isn't milquetoast. He embraced Howard Dean's antiwar themes, in contrast to the cautious support that Mr. Kerry provided the White House on Iraq and other Bush initiatives that Mr. Kerry now criticizes.

"Democrats make a mistake when we get steamrolled on the front end and then whine about it on the back end," Mr. Obama says. That approach could yet undo Mr. Kerry, under assault by Bush forces as a flip-flopper.

Given Illinois's increasingly Democratic cast, it isn't likely that Mr. Obama will stumble. But he could; he faces a credible Republican opponent in ex-business executive Jack Ryan, and the issue of race remains a wild card anywhere. Mr. Rossi, too, could fall short against tough competition from Democratic favorite Christine Gregoire, Washington's attorney general.

Mr. Rossi is counting on voters' desire for change to make the difference. But for his party and Mr. Obama's, the change each man brings to the 2004 campaign already is refreshing.

Write to John Harwood at john.harwood@wsj.com1



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