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Sunday, November 12, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Strong Gore vote hints Washington no longer has swing-state status

Seattle Times political reporter

There was a time before Florida became the center of the universe - before the TV networks declared Gore - no, undecided - no, Bush - no, undecided - too close to call - that some thought Washington state could decide the presidential election.

And it wasn't just political consultants and reporters dreaming of a seat on "Nightline," either.

The candidates seemed to believe it. Al Gore and George Bush fought for Washington votes until Election Day with more campaign stops here than in other recent presidential elections.

After all, Washington looked like a swing state. The state House was tied with 49 Republicans and 49 Democrats. The congressional delegation was as close to a tie as it could be with five Democrats and four Republicans. Recent elections had seen dramatic swings.

So it didn't seem far-fetched when the national Republican chairman, Jim Nicholson, said in Seattle two days before the election that the state was "at ground zero" in the presidential election.

The real number turned out to be 1,020,437. That's how many votes Gore has - so far - to Bush's 914,721 in Washington state.

That's 50 percent for Gore, 45 percent for Bush - not very close, particularly in a race that nationally is so tight that five days after the election we still don't know who won.

In four presidential elections in a row, Washington has backed the Democratic candidate, raising the question of whether in 2004 we'll be considered a swing state.

Voters were more evenly split as they moved down the ballot. Still too close to call are races for the U.S. Senate, secretary of state and state House and Senate seats that could decide the balance of power in the Legislature.

The balance of power in the state Senate could also be decided by a party switch by Sen. Tim Sheldon, a conservative Democrat from Mason County who said he will decide this week.

Most of the attention is on the U.S. Senate race where Republican Sen. Slade Gorton's 42-year political career hangs in the balance.

The nation is watching as well. A victory by Democrat Maria Cantwell would create a 50-50 tie in the Senate if Sen. Joe Lieberman loses his bid for vice president and returns.

Votes counted in Garfield, Okanogan and Whatcom counties yesterday widened the gap in the Senate race. But both campaigns have said they don't expect the race to be over until more votes are counted, including 168,000 from King County.

As of yesterday, Gorton led by 5,353 votes, or .26 percent. A recount is required if the final results are within one-half of 1 percent.

In the race for secretary of state, Democrat Don Bonker, a former congressman from Southwest Washington, had a 3,217-vote lead over Republican Sam Reed, the Thurston County auditor. That is a margin of .17 percent.

Two South King County legislative races remain too close to call. In the 47th District, Republican incumbents Jack Cairnes and Phil Fortunato continue to trail their Democratic challengers.

With so much left undecided, politicians and observers aren't making many predictions or even saying much about the message in Tuesday's election.

What can be said when Gov. Gary Locke racks up one of the biggest victory margins in a Washington governor's race while legislative races are so close? Locke got 58 percent of the vote to 40 percent for Republican John Carlson.

What does it mean when four initiatives passed and two were rejected, with voters approving new state spending while also voting to control the growth of taxes?

"The question is, what do the people want, lower taxes or more services? The answer is yes," joked Joe Dear, Locke's chief of staff.

Dear thinks one likely outcome of the election will be even more initiatives on the ballot.

He said the Legislature, whether both houses are controlled by a slim majority or split, "will not be an arena where major issues are likely to be hashed out."

That's been a trend. In recent years, Republican lawmakers, frustrated by opposition from Locke, sent both a property-tax proposal and a transportation-funding plan directly to the ballot to avoid Locke vetoes.

When Locke couldn't get the Legislature to go along with his education-financing plan, he worked with a Seattle group to put it on the ballot as Initiative 728, which passed Tuesday with 71 percent of the vote.

The governor has already said that any new plan to pay for transportation projects will go to a public vote.

Locke is not likely to get any bolder than the careful, moderate approach of his first term. He sees his victory margin as confirmation that he has taken the right approach.

"I think that both parties have found that you can't win on the fringes and that you have to appeal to the people in the middle," said Martin Flynn, an Olympia consultant and former staff director for state Senate Republicans.

Flynn said that comes, in part, from voters becoming more knowledgeable.

"The more information they have, the less partisan they become," he said.

That will continue, he said, "as we are starting to cut our ties" to organizations such as churches and unions. "Those are the places people used to get their information," he said.

An Olympia business lobbyist says the likely makeup of the Legislature also could mean more power for Locke and his administration.

"What happens in this environment is you get more regulatory power given to agencies because the Legislature can't come to agreement," said Carolyn Logue, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business.

Logue, whose group backed Carlson in the governor's race, said Locke has figured out "what it takes to be governor in the state of Washington where most people are moderates, even if that means being milquetoast some times."

In the presidential race, Washington has been a pretty good bellwether.

Voters here have most-often agreed with the nation, picking winners 21 times and losers six times. That has meant voting for Republicans 15 times, Democrats 11 times and a Progressive, Teddy Roosevelt, once.

(State voters first got to cast ballots for president in 1892, backing Benjamin Harrison. Harrison lost the popular vote but won the presidency with the vote of the Electoral College.)

This year voters here and nationally had differences, according to exit polls by the Voter News Service.

Nationally, voters who said it was important whether they found one candidate likable voted strongly for Bush. But in Washington, so few people were attracted to either candidate by personality that the results were statistically invisible.

Nationally, people with money liked Bush over Gore. For voters who earn more than $100,000 a year, 54 percent voted for Bush, 43 percent for Gore and 3 percent for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader.

In Washington, 50 percent of those well-off voters voted for Gore, 46 percent for Bush and 2 percent for Nader.

Voters here also saw the candidates' abilities differently.

Nationally, of those voters who said world affairs mattered most to them, 54 percent voted for Bush, 40 percent for Gore and 4 percent for Nader.

In Washington, Gore was the favorite among those concerned with international issues, getting 50 percent of the vote. Bush polled 43 percent and Nader got 6.

Washington voters were asked how the federal government's anti-monopoly lawsuit against Microsoft influenced their vote.

Those who said they were influenced a great deal by the case voted overwhelmingly for Republicans in the presidential and Senate races.

Gorton and Carlson both talked about the case in their campaigns and tried to paint their Democratic opponents as not supportive enough of the software company.

In the presidential race in Washington, women preferred Gore over Bush, 55 percent to 39 percent. But in the U.S. Senate race, even with a female candidate, there was less of a female gender gap. Cantwell got 54 percent of the women's vote to Gorton's 44 percent.

The biggest female gender gap was in the governor's race, where 63 percent of women voted for Locke and 36 percent for Carlson.

The exit polls also showed that in Washington, Nader got the biggest chunk of his votes from people 30 to 44 years old, not the college-age students who dominated his campaign operation. Nationally, people 18 to 29 gave Nader his biggest boost.

David Postman is the Seattle Times' chief political reporter. His phone message number is 360-943-9882. His e-mail address is dpostman@seattletimes.com.

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

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