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

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Joni Balter / Seattle Times editorial columnist

Gregoire campaign gives Dems something to chew on

It may be days or weeks before we know who won Washington's close governor's race, but in one sense the final tally doesn't matter. Already, insiders supporting Democrat Christine Gregoire are engaged in something beyond soul-searching about a campaign that started strong, then lost its mo'.

It's a veritable Donner Party of Democrats.

Democratic strategists near and far are ready to pounce on — make that, barbecue and eat — the folks who ran Gregoire's campaign.

"They blew an opportunity, they had the momentum," said longtime political consultant Ron Dotzauer, who managed successful campaigns for Scoop Jackson and Maria Cantwell for U.S. Senate and Booth Gardner for governor.

How, asked another well-connected Democrat, does a pro-choice woman in Washington, who has run and won statewide three times, have higher poll negatives than an anti-choice man?

Good question.

The Gregoire campaign ran on equal parts overconfidence, over-reliance on polling and a certain vagueness about the candidate's goals. Reluctance to attack early allowed a relatively unknown Republican — former state Sen. Dino Rossi — to define himself.

"I would have stripped the bark off him in August," said Dotzauer.

Some of this is second-guessing from the sidelines. Still, Dotzauer and others make good points.

Gregoire's best hope lies with perhaps 100,000 provisional ballots statewide and other outstanding ballots in King, Whatcom and Thurston counties. Provisional ballots are ballots offered voters who requested but did not receive an absentee ballot or whose name, for one reason or another, did not appear in the poll book. Those might not be counted until the week of Nov. 15.

This race is reminiscent of the 2000 contest between former Sen. Slade Gorton, the Republican, and Cantwell, the Democrat, which ended in Cantwell's favor Dec.1 that year.

She won five Puget Sound counties. Two were big voter-heavy counties, King and Snohomish.

As of yesterday, Gregoire was winning seven counties, but only King, Whatcom and Thurston had a sizable number of outstanding ballots.

Democrats railing against the Gregoire campaign have to give it to Republicans for getting the vote out and for assuring Rossi owned the message of change — with him as the change agent.

Rossi's ads portrayed Gregoire as the insider and Rossi the outsider and then blamed insiders for stymieing Washington's economy. His ads were so slick and well-produced they could have been done for Coca-Cola.

By contrast, Gregoire should have run more convincing and omnipresent ads touting her efforts to bring $4.5 billion of free money to the state via the settlement in the giant tobacco lawsuit.

Another consultant said he would have run such ads more often than the TV ads for Ginsu knives.

If she is the insider, Gregoire and current Gov. Gary Locke are different in temperament and even a bit in their politics.

As politically moderate as Locke is, Gregoire is more so. She refused to support Initiative 884, the education trust fund, which the governor enthusiastically backed and which went down big in this week's election. She railed against the governor and lawmakers for tapping tobacco-settlement money to balance the 2002 budget.

Personally, Gregoire has an intensity about her, while Locke for most of his eight years was more genial and laid back.

Why didn't the Gregoire campaign make a bigger deal about Rossi's business-management experience, which is somewhat underwhelming? The Seattle Times' Susan Kelleher reported Rossi, as an apartment landlord, only supervised a few people before he went to the Legislature. Why didn't Gregoire et al. make a bigger stink about that? After all, a governor manages a lot of people.

Remember, Washington is a blue state but it is not reflexively Democratic. It leans Democrat. To learn more about this race and state politics in general, keep your eye on voting in Pierce and Snohomish counties, where Rossi was winning. Both counties backed U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, the Democrat, but not Gregoire.

Gregoire and Rossi will be in the news for weeks until the final votes are tallied. Everybody loves a winner; everybody else takes pot shots at a loser. Those are givens.

But even if Gregoire pulls it out, this campaign will go down in the books as an effort that didn't see the Rossi train coming and missed an opportunity to fully sell a very marketable, very compelling candidate.

Joni Balter's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is jbalter@seattletimes.com. Look for more of her

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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