Sen. Rossi steps down, starts governor's bid from scratch
New polls show he's a well-kept secret. Perhaps fewer than one in four voters recognize his name, and the Democrats have hogged all the attention so far with their three-way shootout. Christine Gregoire, elected statewide three times as attorney general, has a commanding lead in the polls and the fund-raising department.
Democrats acknowledge that Rossi puts a "kinder, gentler" face on conservatism but insist that his anti-abortion stance is a deal-killer for crucial swing voters in the 'burbs.
But if any of this discourages the sunny conservative from Issaquah, he's not letting on.
"I've been an underdog all my life, so why should it be any different now?" he said.
On Friday, Rossi left his power base, the state Legislature and the chairmanship of the influential Senate budget panel, to devote full time to this uphill battle.
Rossi, 44, was the breakout Republican star in the 2003 legislative session, linking with Democratic Gov. Gary Locke to produce a no-new-taxes solution to the state's $2.6 billion budget problem. He got kudos all around, except from the House Democrats and the interest groups he ran over.
But he's untried on the state political stage and starts with scant name familiarity.
Rossi has never run outside the safety of the Republican-leaning 5th Legislative District in the suburbs north and east of Seattle. All three of his Democratic competitors, by contrast, have run statewide -- three times for Gregoire, twice for former Supreme Court Justice Phil Talmadge, and once for King County Executive Ron Sims, who was the party's nominee for U.S. Senate 10 years ago and has been elected by a county with 30 percent of the state voters.
Rossi acknowledged his challenges but said he's not the least worried. Neither is state GOP Chairman Chris Vance.
"I expect Dino Rossi will be the next governor of the state of Washington," declared Vance, who is trying to shoo away all primary challengers.
By the numbers
New polls show Gregoire out front by a country mile and Rossi largely unknown and far behind.
The most extensive poll, conducted by nationally prominent Democratic pollster Mark Mellman for a group that backs Gregoire, shows Gregoire lapping her Democratic challengers and 19 points ahead of Rossi in a head-to-head matchup.
Independent pollster Stuart Elway said his latest statewide poll buttresses some of Mellman's findings, particularly Gregoire's current runaway lead among the Democrats and Rossi's lack of name familiarity.
But one key difference is that his sample of 400 registered voters showed that nearly half remain undecided 10 months before the primary ballots are cast.
"At this point, his task is to get known statewide and get in the game," Elway said. "There's time and plenty of open field left. His plusses are that he still has time and he can raise money -- and time and money are the big things."
Mellman's polling, conducted Nov. 21-24 among 600 likely general election voters, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent, has Gregoire at 46 percent to Rossi's 27 percent, with the rest undecided.
When respondents choose from the entire slate of candidates, Gregoire has 31 percent to Rossi's 22 percent. Sims trails at 11 percent and Talmadge at 4 percent.
Rossi, barely into his nascent campaign, starts far back in name recognition -- 76 percent said they've never heard of him or don't know enough to express an impression of him. About 13 percent said they have a very favorable or somewhat favorable impression of Rossi, and 10 percent said their view was either somewhat or very unfavorable.
On another question, asked of respondents who knew Dino Rossi's name, 84 percent said they don't know enough to say whether he's qualified to be governor.
The poll finds that a majority of voters support abortion rights for women, and 53 percent of the respondents said Rossi's opposition to abortion is a very convincing or somewhat convincing reason to vote against him.
The poll was commissioned by Emily's List, a national organization that raises money for Democratic women candidates who support abortion rights.
Asked about this, Rossi said the issue is one of conscience for a Catholic, that the courts have settled abortion rights and he doesn't expect it to come to the governor's desk.
It's no campaign-killer, he said. "My own legislative district is 65 percent (pro-choice), and they elect me by larger margins than that. People are interested in other things. This race will come down to the economy and jobs and putting people to work, to vision for the state and to whom they believe can restore the greatness of this state."
The Rossi ledger
In addition to the "Rossi who?" problem and the wedge issue of abortion, Rossi has these challenges:
-The state leans Democratic most years. The state last elected a Republican governor, moderate John Spellman, back in the Reagan landslide year of 1980. The state has only two statewide Republican officials, and Democrats occupy both U.S. Senate seats and six of the nine U.S. House districts.
-Although it's early by ordinary standards, the three Democratic hopefuls for governor have been campaigning for months. Rossi was the GOP's fourth or fifth choice after other hot prospects considered a draft and then declined. Vance had wanted a candidate up and running by last July. But snow was flying before Rossi decided to run.
-Rossi's biggest calling card has been the wide and favorable attention he got from being Senate budget chairman. Now he's giving up his legislative seat so he can devote full time to his campaign, so no more gusher of daily free media.
-President Bush and Senate nominee George Nethercutt, both conservatives, might undermine Rossi's bid for moderate voters.
On the plus side of the ledger:
-Rossi should be well- financed. Industrial-strength fat-cats John Stanton and Bruce McCaw and about 60 others are on Rossi's finance committee, and each has committed to raising at least $50,000. That works out to $3 million right there. If the White House stays committed to the governor's race, major national money could flow in.
-The Republican Party is fairly united behind Rossi, giving him the luxury of starting a general election campaign very early -- and allowing him to cozy up to Reagan Democrats, independents and liberal Republicans without fear of alienating his base.
-He already has a compelling theme -- change. After 20 years of Democratic control under Booth Gardner, Mike Lowry and Gary Locke, Rossi can appeal for fresh air in Olympia. "We can do better," Rossi says repeatedly, appropriating Bobby Kennedy's signature line from his presidential bid in 1968 (back when Rossi was just 8 years old).
-Rossi has charisma and puts an appealing face on conservatism, even his detractors concede.
"Dino Rossi is every bit as conservative as John Carlson or even Ellen Craswell (the past two GOP nominees), but he has a friendlier face," said state Democratic Chairman Paul Berendt. "We cannot take the race for granted for one moment."
J Vander Stoep, a Chehalis lawyer and veteran strategist who is advising the Rossi campaign, says "He doesn't scare people. He's a new-ground Republican. He's not a cookie-cutter anything. He didn't do traditional conservative Republican things when he protected the poor and the vulnerable when he wrote the state budget.
"His most important point is that he has a track record of showing he can turn the state around, at a time when people want change. He's credible when he talks about jobs and opportunity."
Dots and dashes
-'Huge. Huge.' That would be Democratic Chairman Paul Berendt excitedly commenting on Al Gore's surprise endorsement of Howard Dean for president. The state party hasn't endorsed anyone for the nomination, but Berendt has personally signed on to Dean, the rebel with a cause. "I have felt in the last 10 days that the train is slowly leaving the station" and that Dean will be nominated, Berendt said.
-Clark bar. Retired Gen. Wesley Clark, who finished second to Dean in a recent Elway Poll in Washington, finished first in a straw poll of King County Young Democrats on Tuesday night -- by a single ballot. Clark had 49, Dean 48 and John Kerry 22. Others were in single digits -- including, oddly enough, Republican California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Maybe it was the Maria Shriver connection.
-Gephardt scion. Matt Gephardt, son of presidential hopeful Dick Gephardt blew through Spokane and Seattle last week.
-Veep repeat. Dick Cheney, a frequent visitor during the 2000 campaign, has scheduled a Jan. 13 fund-raising luncheon in Seattle to benefit the state Republicans. (He previously scheduled a Dec. 22 visit to benefit Senate hopeful George Nethercutt.) Tickets for the 13th cost $500 and up. A photo reception with the vice president goes for $2,500 a pop, including lunch.
-Buh-bye. Todd Webster, the high-octane communications director for Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., is leaving to serve the same role for Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.
-Mail it in. Secretary of State Sam Reed said a record 75 percent of last month's voters used vote-by-mail, a record. A handful of counties voted exclusively by mail, and Cowlitz and Lewis counties had 92 percent and 91 percent vote-by-mail, respectively. Total turnout was 40.5 percent.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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