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Thursday, January 6, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Joni Balter / Seattle Times editorial columnist

Lighting up the phone lines with a 'we-were-had' lament

For devotees of conservative talk radio, nirvana looks a lot like the Washington governor's race, especially if Democrat Christine Gregoire hangs on and becomes governor.

Right-wing talk will have juicy conspiratorial material to gargle on for at least two or three years — perhaps as long as Gregoire is governor in a first term, or until Republican Dino Rossi lands his next political job, whichever comes first. Rossi already is mentioned for U.S. Senate and King County executive. He can run for either if he wishes, as long as the governor's race doesn't run on too long.

The Gregoire-Rossi contest will fuel the airwaves in a negative, "we-were-had" way for years. "We were had" is the top theme of such shows because it lights up the phone lines.

You want outrage, or even mildly informed outrage? Turn the dial and get into it.

In a promotional spot for his KVI-AM (570) morning talk show, host Kirby Wilbur talks about election officials and hollers, "This is such a screaming picture of incompetence." Good for getting the blood circulating on a cold Seattle morning.

On yesterday's show, Wilbur relentlessly whipped up support for a re-vote, referred to Republican candidate Rossi as "Governor Rossi," and suggested allowing the current election to stand would discourage voters and be a "big step down the road toward a very dark future."

On many of these shows, hyperbole is king. Words are loaded. Conspiracy theories are highly encouraged. Hours go by with a constant pitch for a new vote between Rossi and Gregoire. According to one proposal for a new election, the Libertarian candidate, who collected 2 percent of the Nov. 2 vote, would not be included. What a coincidence. That would help Rossi win. Isn't that changing election rules mid-stream?

Obviously, some people involved in talk radio are well informed and well read, including several hosts who clearly do their homework. For example, KVI's afternoon host, John Carlson, does a lot of research and is very knowledgeable.

Yet, talk radio, by its spontaneous nature, often is unburdened by facts.

There is rampant hypocrisy on both sides. Democrats who wanted the election process to go on interminably when their candidate was behind now seem shocked and appalled. Republicans have a similar modus operandi.

Gregoire enthusiasts will hate this, but some element of illegitimacy will dog her for many years because of the closeness of the election. Rossi would suffer the same fate if he convinces a court to help his candidacy.

The Republican attack on the election is by now a near-military operation — air, land and sea. Scour death records to find dead voters. Search records to find felons who voted in violation of the law. Compare the number of voters to votes cast. Hold the outraged — OUTRAGED! — press conference du jour. Do anything and everything to put Rossi back on top. No matter what.

Rossi has a right to contest the election. State law allows for entities to challenge an election in court. But the effort to find anything that might be construed as an election problem begins to detract from Rossi's considerable likability.

Rossi has been high-minded throughout this process, but he has started to look uncomfortable. His press conference last week, in which he asked Gregoire to join him in calling for a new election, did not go well. Rossi stumbled and stammered as he read a letter he wrote to Gregoire. He sounded as if his heart wasn't really in it.

Rossi says he doesn't care if this hurts his long-term reputation, because he is a successful businessman and doesn't need a political job. OK, if he says so.

Last week, Rossi told a TV interviewer he believes the hand recount is less accurate than the two earlier counts. But Sam Reed, the Republican secretary of state, says this count probably is the most accurate because it has been refined through a process of counting and recounting.

Conservative talk radio is best when the host and the listeners are railing at something. Think Rush Limbaugh v. Bill Clinton and Whitewater, Monica Lewinsky or impeachment. Think KIRO AM's (710) Dori Monsoon — I mean Monson — v. Larry Phillips and all those supposedly illegitimate voters in King County.

With Republicans in control in the White House, U.S. House and Senate, it is challenging for some talk-show hosts to find enough compelling material to get riled up about. Their gang is in power and they have to find something more than unsightly national deficits and an ill-advised war.

Serve up the closest governor's race in state history, one with decisive votes coming out of the most liberal and richest county, and you have something very close to talk-show heaven.

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 thoughts on the STOP blog, our editorial online journal at www.seattletimes.com/stop

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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