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Wednesday, September 15, 2004 - Page updated at 03:15 P.M.

It's Gregoire vs. Rossi in governor's race

By Ralph Thomas
Seattle Times Olympia bureau

ALAN BERNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Christine Gregoire kisses her daughter Michelle less than an hour after the polls closed last night. She was defeating King County Executive Ron Sims for the Democratic nomination for governor in nearly every county, including King County. Gregoire's oldest daughter, Courtney, is at left.
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Attorney General Christine Gregoire cruised to an easy victory last night in the Democratic primary for governor, setting up a showdown with Republican Dino Rossi in the general election.

Gregoire was defeating King County Executive Ron Sims by overwhelming margins across the state — including King County.

"We were optimistic, but we didn't anticipate this margin," Gregoire said.

Rossi, a former state senator trying to become the state's first Republican elected as governor since 1980, faced no significant opposition in yesterday's GOP primary.

The general-election campaign — a seven-week scramble — will cap what is already the most expensive governor's race in state history.

And it quickly turned acrimonious, as Democrats painted Rossi as an arch-conservative.

"The people of the state of Washington do not want right-wing conservatives," said two-term Democratic Gov. Gary Locke, speaking last night at Gregoire's victory party.

"Dino Rossi is just as conservative as Ellen Craswell and John Carlson," Locke said, referring to the past two Republican nominees. Locke trounced both by 60-40 ratios. "The thing about Dino is, he is a very good speaker, comes across in very moderate and reassuring tones."

ALAN BERNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Republican Dino Rossi, who faced no significant challenge in the primary, beams as he enters his campaign's celebration yesterday.
Rossi replied, "I am truly running against the defenders of the status quo. Many people have said it will be Gary Locke's third term if she is elected."

Yesterday's balloting was also the initial test of Washington's controversial new primary-election format, in which voters for the first time in 70 years were required to choose a specific party ballot.

In early returns, significantly more voters were choosing Democratic ballots than Republican ones.

Among other highlights:

• In the race to replace Gregoire as attorney general, former state Insurance Commissioner Deborah Senn appeared headed to victory over former Seattle City Attorney Mark Sidran for the Democratic nomination. On the Republican side, King County Councilman Rob McKenna easily defeated attorney Mike Vaska.

• In the crowded race for the open 8th Congressional District seat, celebrity carried the day. King County Sheriff Dave Reichert defeated three other Republicans, including state Sen. Luke Esser and former federal prosecutor Diane Tebelius. Talk-show-radio host Dave Ross defeated retired RealNetworks executive Alex Alben on the Democratic side and Heidi Behrens-Benedict.

• In Seattle's 36th Legislative District, Democratic Rep. Helen Sommers, the state's longest-serving lawmaker, was leading community activist Alice Woldt. The rare and expensive primary challenge to a legislative leader was bankrolled largely by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

After a sometimes bruising campaign, Gregoire and Sims were talking unity last night. Gregoire praised Sims for running a "vibrant race."

"We must elect Christine Gregoire to be the governor of the state of Washington," said Sims, who got choked up as he conceded defeat. "We have work to do."

Widely viewed as the front-runner from the moment she entered the race, Gregoire ran a cautious primary campaign. She mostly shied away from head-to-head debates with Sims and stuck to general, noncontroversial themes such as improving education and creating jobs. She tried to appeal to independent voters, who will be key to winning in November.

Some critics said Gregoire, in her third term as attorney general, seemed to be running as an anointed candidate.

"Her campaign team viewed the primary election as merely a ceremonial step that she had to get through," said former Democratic campaign consultant Sue Tupper, a Sims supporter.

Sims, on the other hand, tried to take advantage of the state's new closed primary by focusing on a liberal agenda that would appeal to devout Democrats.

Last month, Sims took a big gamble: announcing a plan to "blow up" Washington's tax structure and replace it with a personal income tax. He said his plan would shift the bulk of the tax burden from the poor to the rich and would provide more money for education and health care.

Though some praised Sims' tax plan for its boldness, Gregoire dismissed it as "dead on arrival" in Olympia. Washington voters in the past have resoundingly rejected income-tax proposals.

Many prominent Democrats — including Locke — and key groups stuck with Gregoire, partly because they viewed her as a more viable candidate to face Rossi. And she spent more than double what Sims did. .

Heading into the primary, the three major candidates had already raised nearly $9 million, topping the record $8.8 million raised in 1996. This year's total will likely grow by several million.

Rossi and Gregoire each has raised more than $3.7 million. But Rossi, facing no significant challenge in the primary, has $700,000 more in the bank. Both have fund-raisers planned today.

Republican leaders see Rossi, who calls himself a "fiscal conservative with a social conscience," as their best hope in years. During the past four gubernatorial elections, only once has the Republican nominee won more than 43 percent of the vote.

Like Gregoire, Rossi has been tailoring his message to appeal to moderate, suburban "swing" voters.

At times, in fact, it's been hard to tell the two candidates apart. Both talk often about creating jobs, oppose new taxes and talk about "growing" the economy to boost state revenue.

But Rossi and the Republicans aim to capitalize on people's frustration with Olympia and convince voters that it's time for a change.

Rossi, who spent more than 20 years in the commercial real-estate business, pointed out that Gregoire "has worked for the government her entire adult life."

Meanwhile, the state Democratic Party for months has had a link on its Web site called "The Real Dino Rossi," pointing to issues from his ties to President Bush to his stance against abortion.

"My opponent is not a bad person," said Gregoire, who is hoping to become the state's second woman governor, after Dixy Lee Ray. "It's just that we see the world very, very differently. ... I don't believe in personal attacks, but make no mistake, we will be talking about issues in this race."

Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882 or rthomas@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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