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Sunday, September 10, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Tough re-election race is nothing new to Gorton

Seattle Times Washington bureau

Democrats

debate tonight

Democratic U.S. Senate candidates Deborah Senn and Maria Cantwell will appear in an hourlong debate on KING-TV at 6 tonight. Sponsors are The Seattle Times, KING-TV and the Washington State League of Women Voters.

The candidates will take questions from a panel of journalists, including Seattle Times staff reporters Dionne Searcey and John Hendren.

WASHINGTON - Framed on the wall of Slade Gorton's spacious Senate office are 14 quill pens, each a memento of an appearance before the U.S. Supreme Court as Washington state's top law enforcer during the 1970s.

"That's my attorney-general wall," said Gorton, a Republican who used the job as a stepping stone to the Senate. "Probably half of those involved Indian cases."

This year, as Gorton enters a campaign that has the potential to end his political career, Indians freshly fortified with millions of dollars in casino revenues have regrouped for another crack at him. And they're not alone.

The tribal alliance has been joined by a formidable array of organizations seeking to unseat him: The League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club, the American Medical Association and the prescription-drug industry have each already funded advertisements targeting Gorton.

His fate this year hinges largely on whether he succeeds in defining himself or allows challengers to define him, as Brock Adams did before unseating the first-term senator in 1986.

Critics describe Gorton as a kind of David Bowie of American politics, an agile chameleon who goes out of fashion only long enough to re-emerge with a new face. But Gorton's allies see something deeper, a man profoundly reshaped by his lone election loss in 1986, who has spent a dozen years learning to listen to constituents and absorbed two key lessons: Local politics trump national issues, and voters are right even when they disagree with him.

"Someone who's attempting to get another chance at office can either say the voters were wrong and you're giving them a chance to correct their mistake, or you were wrong and you recognize it and you're going to change your ways," Gorton said. "You don't have to be awfully smart to know which one of those is more likely to be a success."

Facing a serious challenge

The state legislator who helped lead the green movement of the 1970s has made his opposition to removing dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers a centerpiece of his campaign, though conservationists say the dams block salmon from their spawning grounds. The senator who angered the elderly by voting to withhold Social Security cost-of-living increases during the 1980s now calls for safeguarding program funds and expanding prescription-drug access.

"He's faced with a wholesale reinvention of himself," said Jim Jordan, political director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

A statewide Elway Poll shows the incumbent senator dead even (40 percent each) in a potential November match-up with his closest competitor, Democrat Maria Cantwell, a multimillionaire and former congresswoman who can fund her campaign by writing her own checks. Trailing was Deborah Senn, the state insurance commissioner, who is vying with Cantwell in the Sept. 19 Democratic primary. When the poll pitted Senn against Gorton, it was Gorton 43 percent, Senn 33.

The Democratic Party has made defeating Gorton a cornerstone of its plan to recapture the Senate and has vowed to spend "whatever it takes" to win.

Yet veteran political observers aren't rushing to write Gorton's epitaph. Though famously charmless - he told this year's state GOP convention apologetically, "I'm not very good at feeling your pain" - Gorton has spent much of his 40-year government career a few votes ahead of defeat in the political equivalent of television's "Survivor."

Knocking down a political icon

Gorton was widely considered a rising star when he entered the Senate in 1980, defeating legendary incumbent Warren Magnuson in a contest that contrasted the athletic Gorton's vigor with the elder statesman's physical decline.

Veteran Senate colleagues marveled at a newcomer who had mastered the vastly complex federal budget in 1983, taking a leading role in crafting the GOP plan. He was a leader in the national debate on Social Security. But a funny thing happened on the way to national prominence: The state's voters turned him out in his first re-election bid.

Friends say Gorton's 1986 defeat humbled and changed him. Post-election polls showed his vote against Social Security increases cost him aging voters, and his decision to swap with another senator for support of two federal judges left the impression he had traded principle. His position on the national stage contrasted with a perception that he was doing less for the state voters who elected him.

His personal style exacerbated voters' alienation. When people discussed problems, former aide Gary Smith recalled, "He had a way of offering a solution that was quicker in the conversation than was considered polite."

The political missteps and personal style made for a powerful combination, and Adams took advantage of it. He won with ads that portrayed Gorton as arrogant and aloof. Even conservative voters stayed home.

"They sat on their hands in Washington state and his turnout suffered," Smith said.

When former Gov. Dan Evans, a Republican and Gorton supporter, planned to vacate his own Senate seat in 1988, Gorton jumped at the chance to run again. Friends and campaign aides called a meeting. With his wife, Sally, watching, they told him he could not win unless he acted with greater humility, emphasized local issues, stopped interrupting people and showed he could listen.

"His friends told him that they thought his behavior was a powerful factor in his defeat, and that if he wanted people to help him, he had to help himself first," Smith said. "I think it was very painful for him personally. Here was a guy who'd had a very successful career, and all of a sudden lifelong friends were saying things he couldn't imagine."

Like President Clinton, who refashioned his political career after being turned out by voters as governor of Arkansas in 1980, Gorton launched a mea-culpa campaign. It worked. He defeated liberal Mike Lowry in a 51-49 percent squeaker.

A change in the packaging

At 72, Gorton looks younger than the figure in the photos on his office wall. The lawyer's pinstripes long ago gave way to sporty cardigans on the campaign trail. The silver hair has ceded territory to an arched brow, but his reedy frame remains in running trim.

Gone are the Coke-bottle glasses that made him squint, his pale blue eyes now visible through the artificial lenses implanted during cataract surgeries in December and January.

"I think he's going to be perceived this year as more friendly and approachable than at any time in his career," Smith said.

Despite the makeover, Gorton retains many of the same personality traits. The Ivy League lawyer still speaks in precise diction, often in lengthy, complex sentences that retain the logical structure of a grammar teacher. "He's not a schmoozer," his wife concedes. But he now displays a sense of humor about his quirks. Mocking Al Gore's Democratic convention kiss with wife Tipper, Gorton ended an address at a recent Republican picnic by planting a lingering smooch on his own spouse. The crowd erupted.

His reputed charmlessness has always been something of a caricature, and he can quickly warm up in conversation, as when he leans forward in his chair to tell the tale of how he won $3,200 on television's "Tic-Tac-Dough" in 1957 and was still leading before his Seattle law firm called him back to work.

Beyond altering his style, the senator also made changes in substance. Gorton set up three dozen regional groups of advisers to funnel grass-roots concerns to him. He now ephasizes local impact. He opposes dam removal largely because local economies depend on them, criticizes Clinton's designation of Hanford Reach as a national monument because locals had no say, and has authored an education plan giving local schools more choice in spending federal money.

"People whose lives will be the most affected should have the lion's share of control," Gorton said.

On national issues, he often exhibits a populist bent. He emphasizes his success in pressing for welfare reform and a balanced budget, and promises to pursue GOP proposals to offer expanded prescription-drug coverage, a broad tax cut, and a Social Security plan that lets recipients invest some of their funds.

Steering money to the state

Perhaps more than any other current Washington state lawmaker, Gorton brings home the bacon.

He is one of very few lawmakers to combine coveted seats on both the Budget and Appropriations committees. He uses them and his ties to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., to steer federal funds to the Northwest.

After winning an "oinker" award in April from Citizens Against Government Waste - for funneling a $5 million grant to Washington salmon hatcheries - he proudly pointed out the honor in a news release. After showering the Evergreen State with Interior projects this year, Gorton, who chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior spending, offered a side-by-side analysis of what he's done for the state compared with Washington colleagues in the House.

While handing out carrots, Gorton has also wielded a stick. The outspoken champion of Microsoft acknowledged that he used his Appropriations seat last year to seek a $10 million cut in proposed funding for the Justice Department's antitrust office, which was suing the Redmond company. The money was later restored, but Gorton had made his point.

"I felt that we should signal to the Department of Justice our disgust with the Microsoft litigation," Gorton said.

The left-right label debate

Gorton is often criticized for tilting rightward in recent years. But on key issues, such as the environment, he says it is the political landscape and not he who has changed.

Environmentalists, though, say he has abandoned them. Gorton worked to create the state Department of Ecology and limit billboards. In the Senate, he helped protect 1 million acres of wilderness in the Cascades.

But recently he has opposed outlawing clear-cutting of forests to save the spotted owl's habitat, and opposed reintroducing wolves in the Olympic Peninsula. He went rock climbing to dramatize his opposition to a Forest Service plan to ban climbers from using fixed anchors in wilderness areas. Last year, the Lands Council gave him its Dead Swan award.

Gorton partisans say he hasn't changed - the movement has: The 1970s' land measures were largely approved by consensus, while issues such as the spotted owl and dams have inspired vigorous dissent. Environmental groups such as the Sierra Club are too closely aligned with the Democratic Party to be objective, Gorton spokeswoman Cynthia Bergman said.

"Gorton is being tagged for casting `anti-environmental' votes even though he has a long record of working to preserve Washington's special places, clean up lakes and streams, and restore Northwest salmon runs," she said.

Rival Senn contends Gorton has grown increasingly out of step on a wide range of issues.

"He voted three times in this past year against the (Democratic) patients bill of rights," she said. "He voted against the nuclear test-ban treaty. He voted five times in four years against campaign finance reform."

Gorton said the votes on patient rights were strategic - he voted for a "more responsible" GOP version - and adds that several former Republican secretaries of state also opposed the test-ban treaty.

The nonpartisan National Journal has placed him just right of center throughout his career, more conservative than 50 senators but more liberal than at least 25. In 1999 he voted to acquit President Clinton of perjury and convict him of obstruction of justice.

Many Indian groups say it's not Gorton's changes of heart, but his maddening consistency on their issues that bothers them. He and many tribes have been at odds since the 1960s, when as attorney general he lost a landmark fishing-rights case before the Supreme Court.

Gorton said he believes Indian tribes should be treated as sovereign except in disputes with non-Indians.

Tom Keefe, a Democrat running for Congress in the 5th District who has lived on the Nez Perce Indian Reservation, has noted that Gorton has helped fund new Indian schools, and concludes, "he is a man who is willing to listen and to help." W. Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe and vice president of the National Conference of American Indians, countered that "it would be both disingenuous and hypocritical to be `bought off' by such measures."

Not afraid of controversy

Gorton endorsed the presidential campaign of Texas Gov. George W. Bush during a pilgrimage to Austin in December 1998, well before Bush announced his bid. Since then Gorton campaigned for the Republican nominee in the state and has criticized the Clinton-Gore administration on such statewide issues as dam removal, the Microsoft antitrust case and federal funding for last year's volcanic World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle.

Gorton makes no apologies for what critics call his aggressive partisanship.

"Politics is about choices," he said. "It's about attempting to come up with a correct answer, and a politician who is never controversial is probably never going to do anything."

Mixing fish and politics

Gorton was born in Chicago during the pre-Depression year of 1928. His great-grandfather founded the Gorton's of Gloucester fish company in New England, but his grandfather lost it to bankers. Gorton's jobless father moved to the leafy suburb of Evanston, Ill., just long enough to raise him, launch a second fish company - Slade Gorton & Co., now run by Gorton's brother, Mike - and return to Boston.

He attended Dartmouth College and the law schools at Northwestern and Columbia universities and picked Seattle as his next home from a map in the back of an almanac. In 1952, he bought a one-way ticket on a Greyhound bus and, with about $300 in his pocket, landed a temporary job at a Seattle law firm. He avoided the family business, but much of his political career has centered on fishing.

"I fled 3,000 miles to escape the fish business and went 500 miles too far," Gorton quipped.

He spent three years in the Air Force and returned to Washington state in 1956. He met Seattle Times reporter Sally Jean Clark at a party in February 1957. The daughter of a politically combative Republican mother and a Democratic father, she had vowed she would have nothing to do with politics. But after their marriage the next June, Gorton cut their honeymoon a day short to launch his political career. Two years after returning from the Air Force, he was representing Seattle in the Legislature.

"I went along cheerfully because I thought he'd grow out of it," Sally Gorton said. "How on earth would I have known in 1958 that he'd become a U.S. senator?"

Pollster says it'll be close

This year, perhaps more than at any time since his ill-fated 1986 run, his strategy will be crucial in determining his fate. In the statewide Elway Poll, only 7 percent of Gorton supporters picked him for his "personal qualities."

Other observers aren't surprised. "He's just got a style that a lot of voters don't like. They just don't warm to him," said Tim Hibbitts, a pollster from Portland. Except for a 12-point margin during the Republican sweep of 1994, all of Gorton's statewide races have been tight, and Hibbitts thinks this year will be the same. "I anticipate him having a difficult time of it. Win or lose, I think it's a 3- or 4-point race."

Gorton has all but written Seattle off his campaign schedule. He draws key support from Eastern Washington and the ring of Seattle suburbs. But Cantwell, a one-term congresswoman from Edmonds and former RealNetworks executive, could hurt him in the suburbs this year if she wins her primary, and the Seattle area has grown more quickly than Eastern Washington since his last election.

But he has received some breaks. Washington's late primary leaves the Democratic challenger just six weeks to mount a general-election campaign, giving the advantage to an incumbent senator with 90 percent name recognition. That edge was expanded when Democrats failed to unite early behind a single candidate. The strongest contender, Attorney General Christine Gregoire, bowed out.

Gorton himself faces three Republican challengers in the primary, but none is considered a serious threat.

The age issue, revisited

Gorton continues to jog as many as five miles a day, and quickly recovered from a minor heart attack following his 1994 victory. But despite his obvious vigor, the contrast his campaign drew in 1980 between an aging statesman and a vigorous newcomer now threatens to mock him, like a grizzled Mick Jagger singing "Time is on my side." Senn is 51, Cantwell is 41.

Gorton acknowledges that the 2000 race is likely to be among his most difficult, but he retains the confidence of a man who has won six of seven statewide elections.

"The race in front of you is always the toughest race of your career," he said.

John Hendren's phone-message number is 206-464-2772. His e-mail address is jhendren@seattletimes.com.

------------------------------------------------------------

Slade Gorton

Age: 72

Hometown: Bellevue

Education: Bachelor's

degree in international

relations from Dartmouth College; attended Northwestern University law school for one year; law degree from Columbia University.

Political experience: State House of Representatives 1958-1968; state attorney general, 1968-1980; U.S. Senate 1980-1986, 1988-present.

Work experience: Practicing attorney 1966-1968;

1986-1988.

Hobbies: Running, reading novels and history, walking on the beach near Whidbey

Island vacation home, pickleball (played with a whiffle ball on a badminton-sized court).

Interesting fact: Won $3,200 on television game show "Tic-Tac-Dough" in 1957.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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