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Thursday, November 11, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Joni Balter / Seattle Times editorial columnist

Two women, two campaigns, two very different outcomes

In 1992, two female Democratic politicians were elected to statewide office — one was low-key and underestimated, the other high-powered and full of ambition. Now, one is atop the political heap while the other's fate hangs on thousands of iffy provisional ballots.

As Democrats nationwide try to figure out how not to become the party of losers, they should borrow a few pages from the campaign for Sen. Patty Murray, who has collected roughly 170,000 more votes than Attorney General Christine Gregoire in their respective races for senator and governor.

Murray is the everywoman, the un-politician. And voters seem pretty comfortable with No-Pretense Patty in part because she is kind of like us.

In the latest election, Murray connected with voters, while Gregoire had trouble. Murray ran on a clear record of delivering the goods for Washington. Gregoire tried to make the most of her role in securing $4.5 billion in a tobacco settlement, but voters seemed focused on other things.

"Members of legislative bodies don't need a vision as much as a message; Murray had a message," said Jennifer Duffy, managing editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "Her message was, 'I am in tune with you. I serve you well. I stick up for you.' "

Governors, by contrast, do need a vision. Gregoire's was one of providing health care and trying to stimulate the economy, but it may not have been as clear or compelling as the message of Republican opponent Dino Rossi. He hammered away at the idea that he would be the change agent who would make the state more business-friendly.

And Murray responded to every barb from her opponent as if it were the single most terrifying ad that would kill her candidacy if left unanswered. Gregoire was a bit slower on the uptake.

Obviously, as Tim Zenk of the Gregoire campaign points out, a two-term incumbent seeking re-election to the Senate is a different proposition than two candidates running for an open governor's seat. But both Murray and Gregoire have run statewide before. They are not neophytes.

Their political fortunes are also different due to the nature of the jobs they currently hold. Murray's senatorial job requires her to travel around the state and talk to people directly, find out what bothers them, then craft a way to federally fund some of what they need.

This is something Gregoire couldn't do. While she did travel to solicit ideas from different communities on issues like juvenile justice and bullying in schools, an attorney general spends more time serving clients, mainly state agencies, which keeps her more anchored in Olympia and Seattle.

State Sen. Tim Sheldon says Murray won Mason County — Gregoire did not — in part because Murray delivers for all Washington's counties. Sheldon is a Democrat from Potlatch, though his "D" designation could not be weirder. He campaigned for Republican Rossi and George Bush, then cited a water-and-sewer project in his county for which Murray helped secure federal funds.

While Murray does her work in the spotlight, Gregoire the lawyer has to be discreet and careful. To some people, that translates to aloof.

Murray's vote against the Iraq war — a brave stand at the time — was a hit in this anti-Bush, anti-war state. Gregoire was forced to spend a fair amount of time defending her actions regarding a staffer who blew a deadline in a high-profile lawsuit.

And that raises another obvious point. Murray had a relatively easy summer because she didn't have a real primary opponent. Gregoire faced the passionate King County Executive Ron Sims, who lambasted her all summer long. Gregoire beat Sims handily in the primary, but over time, the damage was done.

Sixteen months ago, as Gregoire entered the governor's race, one consultant said she was so popular, babies are born with higher negatives. That was then. By mid-September, her halo had faded considerably.

After all the witty punditry and deep mathematical analysis, politics still comes down to likability. Just like high school.

To me, Gregoire is plenty likable. But while Murray is the down-to-Earth, I'm-like-you candidate, Gregoire is more lawyerly, more self-assured — and some people don't know what to make of that.

Murray benefited from the fact that her Republican opponent, Congressman George Nethercutt, hailed from Spokane and was relatively unknown west of the mountains. His race ended unofficially several weeks ago when the National Republican Senatorial Committee pulled its money and its ads. Rossi's ads came on strong the last weeks.

Though Rossi jumped out presumptively with a transition plan this week, either candidate still could win. But Democrats here and elsewhere will be talking for some time about two campaigns and two candidates who differed from the very start.

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

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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