Rossi raises GOP hopes of taking governor's seat - Republican's style seen as unifying for often splintered party


May 29, 2004

BELLEVUE, WA-- Many Republican faithful have waited 20 years for Dino Rossi to take the stage.

And when the GOP's first viable gubernatorial candidate in two decades finally did at the state Republican convention here yesterday, it was in classic Rossi style: friendly, unassuming -- a family man standing in front of the podium.

"What got me in this race was my wife," said Rossi, sharing the stage with his wife, Terry, and four children. He told the crowd of about 1,500, "She said to me, 'What kind of state do you want our children growing up in?' ... It's time for a change. It's truly time for a change," said Rossi, who later rattled off a list of several states that recently elected their first Republican governors in decades.

For many Republicans, Rossi is the face for hope in statewide efforts -- in the governor's race and beyond. For decades, the Washington GOP has suffered a splinter between the right wing and the moderate swing votes that decide the race.

Backers of Rossi say he appeals to both.

Yesterday, he was a crowd favorite among a handful of Republican speakers at the three-day annual convention -- part party business, part pep rally. In meetings closed to the press, leaders also trained activists for campaigning and elected delegates to the National Republican Convention in New York this summer. President Bush's national campaign director, Marc Racicot, was scheduled to speak at a banquet last night.

Today, they plan to finalize the state party platform.

Party leaders were both fueling and feeding off of Rossi's popularity yesterday.

The key to his appeal is he is conservative enough for right-leaning GOP activists who attend state conventions and volunteer on the campaign trail, but moderate enough for the critical suburban swing vote, said Chris Vance, chairman of the state Republican Party.

How conservative or moderate is that?

Vance wouldn't elaborate yesterday -- instead deferring to Rossi.

"I don't really put labels on it," Rossi said in an interview, adding that his work as a former state Senate budget chairman has won him five awards of appreciation from advocates of the developmental disabled and several awards from fiscal conservatives.

"Everybody has different ways of looking at me."

Rossi said a lot of people consider him a moderate, but he stopped short of assigning himself any label. "I guess I'm kind of an eclectic Republican that comes from a conservative Democratic family," said the Sammamish real estate executive.

To many delegates to the convention yesterday who think he is their chance for getting the first Republican governor in 20 years, that amounts to balance.

He's a "fiscal conservative who still can maintain what I'd call a social conscience" in matters such as state social programs, said Javier Figueroa, a 52-year-old land manager for the state parks department from University Place.

Social service advocates will disagree as the campaign heats up, citing the health and welfare programs they favor that Rossi proposed cutting. For example, as Senate Budget chairman in 2003, Rossi proposed a state budget that would have cut prenatal health care for illegal immigrant women and pushed 40,000 children off of health care coverage. (The final budget did not cut the prenatal care, but it did move thousands of children off health care.)

Looking for better values in government, Figueroa said he got involved in politics about 10 years ago, partially because he felt public schools were exposing his young children to inappropriate materials, partially because he was tired of taxes increasing.

"He's more balanced in how he approaches the different issues," said Figueroa, who called previous GOP gubernatorial candidates more extreme.

And Rossi enjoys a key advantage over Democrats in the race for the open seat. Unlike Democrats, he gets to skate easily through the primary with no serious competition.

The Republican Party planned it that way. Chairman Vance made clear he would support only one candidate and handpicked Rossi after several others declined. It's part of his aggressive efforts at party "unity" -- after many years of it splintering over the gubernatorial race.

By contrast, the Democratic candidates -- state Attorney General Christine Gregoire and King County Executive Ron Sims -- must bloody themselves in an intraparty contest before the winner can truly face off with Rossi.

Each has long records in public service -- allowing for long paper trails and intense scrutiny. Thus, each has political baggage -- an idea that only invigorates Republican candidates further.

Since 1984, most GOP gubernatorial candidates were from the party's fringe -- and most were not viable from the get-go.

In 1988, Republicans nominated evangelical Bob Williams, an ultraconservative former lawmaker. He was trounced.

In 1992, it was Ken Eikenberry, then state attorney general, who took a shot. But, most observers say, he blew his chances with an inept campaign that antagonized even the business community.

In 1996 came Ellen Craswell, then a state lawmaker who felt called upon by God to run for governor and wanted to expand the death penalty. She lost by nearly 20 percentage points.

Finally, in 2000 came conservative radio talk show host John Carlson. Too far right for many, too untested for some. He polled a bit lower than Craswell.

Rossi even has managed to spin two decades of GOP defeat into an indictment of Democrats.

"The same people have been running the show for 20 years. People are very hungry right now for someone who is willing to stand up and say, 'No, we need to go in this direction.' "



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