Thursday, November 4, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Gregoire vs. Rossi: Why it's so close

Seattle Times chief political reporter

The close finish in the governor's race that left the outcome unknown two days after the election didn't come as a complete surprise to either campaign.

Democrat Christine Gregoire and Republican Dino Rossi had polling that showed a Republican surge within the past two weeks.

They disagree, though, on how a race that Gregoire had long been thought to dominate could be so close that Republicans have their best chance in 20 years to win the governor's mansion.

Gregoire, a three-term attorney general, had advantages: money, name recognition, statewide victories and membership in the state's dominant political party.

"I'm quite sure that from day one, Gregoire Inc. was quite confident they were going to win because they've been winning for 20 years," said Rossi adviser J. VanderStoep.

Interviews with Democrats and Republicans point to strategy by Gregoire's campaign that contributed to the surprisingly close contest. She made an unconvincing case that she was an outsider in the race, seemed to pull punches on trying to paint Rossi as ultraconservative and delivered a muddled message about her support of incumbent Democratic Gov. Gary Locke.

Meanwhile, Rossi painted Gregoire as the protector of the status quo.

Gregoire's media consultant, Frank Greer, said the margin won't be nearly as thin as it looks today. He thinks the problem is the slow pace of counting absentee ballots in Democratic-dominated King County. He is confident the final count will give Gregoire enough of a margin of victory that there is no need to second-guess strategy.

Greer said Gregoire's polls never showed her more than 10 points ahead of Rossi and the race tightened in recent days as President Bush gained strength. He also said that with fellow Democrat Locke in office, Gregoire had to contend with a "fairly unpopular current administration."

Given all that, he said, "she did a heck of a good job."

As of last night, Gregoire had a 14,300-vote lead over Rossi out of nearly 2 million votes cast. If current trends continue, the winner could have the narrowest victory margin of any governor in the state's history.

Republicans have not won a gubernatorial election since John Spellman was elected in the 1980 Ronald Reagan presidential victory.

Locke dominated his elections in 1996 and 2000, easily beating two conservative Republicans.

Even Gregoire staff members concede Rossi was a personable candidate. He worked hard to avoid answering questions about social issues and continued to try to steer the debate back to his message: I'm a businessman, an outsider, and after 20 years of Democratic rule, it's time for a change.

Rossi is a real-estate agent and spent seven years in the Legislature, rising to chair the most powerful committee, the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

"People didn't really connect with Chris," said state Democratic Party Chairman Paul Berendt. "I think she and [Sen. John] Kerry were a lot alike in this regard. There was just a little bit of distance between them and their supporters."

He attributed that to her training as a lawyer.

Berendt said Rossi was able to come across as "a fresh face and someone new and someone who was speaking with a different voice." Gregoire, he said, couldn't play the outsider card too much because she was "someone who was not really willing, for good reasons, to repudiate the status quo."

There was a debate among Democrats during the campaign about how closely Gregoire should tie her fortunes to Locke.

Rossi's campaign theme was change, and he liked to call Locke Gregoire's "mentor" and her his "handpicked successor."

The governor, Berendt said, wanted to be part of the action, but Gregoire remained distant.

"Gary was bouncing off the wall, very frustrated," he said. "Gary is proud of his legacy, and he wanted to defend it."

While Gregoire repeatedly said she would bring needed leadership to Olympia, she didn't criticize Locke and said, "I'm not running against Gary Locke."

Gregoire campaign manager Tim Zenk explained: "We really wanted this campaign to be about what Chris can do and has done for the citizens of the state. We didn't want this to be a referendum on Gary Locke."

Zenk said the lead Gregoire held in the polls throughout the campaign began to lessen, in part because Rossi's negative ads were persuasive, particularly among occasional voters the campaigns were targeting.

Rossi continually hit Gregoire on her office's failure to file a legal appeal that ended up costing the state $20 million. That, Zenk said, "certainly had more meat" than issues Gregoire used against Rossi.

Gregoire tried to capitalize on news stories about Rossi's business dealings and an exaggeration on his résumé. But those "weren't very interesting to voters," Zenk said.

Democrats worked hard to paint Rossi as a right-winger. Locke painted him as a religious zealot in comments at Gregoire's victory campaign the night of the September primary. The Democratic Party sent out repeated statements claiming Rossi was hiding his real, radical, leanings.

But the campaign's TV commercials didn't hit that theme hard. Sen. Patty Murray, who easily won re-election, was much tougher in her attacks on Rep. George Nethercutt. Her ads talked about Nethercutt's anti-abortion stance and showed pictures of women under arrest and claimed "George Nethercutt — just too extreme for Washington."

VanderStoep said he wondered why his candidate wasn't getting hit as hard as Nethercutt. He said the substance of the attacks was similar, "but stylistically it wasn't the same." He said that even after months of Democratic pounding, Rossi's polls showed only about 20 percent of voters would identify him as "very conservative."

"You can't take someone who is one thing and get the public to get them to believe he is someone completely different," VanderStoep said.

The Republican Governors Association (RGA) helped Rossi by running its own ad campaigns against Gregoire. The D.C. group's executive director, Ed Tobin, said Rossi "had a very refreshing, positive — albeit Republican — message."

He said that in the final weeks, the RGA focused on women voters who identified themselves as independents or "soft Republicans" who might have been leaning toward voting for Gregoire.

The group also focused on King County and the Seattle television market. Some previous Republican campaigns focused instead on areas outside Seattle in an attempt to make up for the area's Democratic leanings.

David Postman: 360-943-9882

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company


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