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Originally published Saturday, February 20, 2010 at 12:58 PM

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Inouye faces little opposition for 9th Senate term

Democrats may be jittery about holding their majority in the U.S. Senate, as some incumbents retire and others face stiff Republican opposition in November, but they can count on 85-year-old Daniel Inouye, who in seeking a ninth six-year term representing Hawaii.

Associated Press Writer

HONOLULU —

Democrats may be jittery about holding their majority in the U.S. Senate, as some incumbents retire and others face stiff Republican opposition in November, but they can count on 85-year-old Daniel Inouye, who in seeking a ninth six-year term representing Hawaii.

The venerable War World II hero faces no established Republican or Democratic challenger, as of yet.

In an announcement that was no surprise, Inouye told 2,000 supporters at a $200-a-plate Waikiki fundraiser on Wednesday night, "I'm asking you to just give me another opportunity to continue this work. I can assure you of one thing, I'll do my damnedest."

The third-longest serving senator in U.S. history had, as of Dec. 31, amassed a war chest of $3.2 million even without marquee opposition.

"I can't imagine who they could come up with," Rick Castberg, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, said of the GOP. "Even Republicans are going to vote for him because he brings in so much (federal) money" into the state.

At one point, Republican Gov. Linda Lingle's name was bandied about as a potential Senate candidate, particularly after her strong re-election victory in 2006. But she repeatedly has said she will not seek another office until she finishes her final term as governor.

Which leaves the GOP, so far, with a 44-year-old social worker named John Roco, who has never before sought elected office.

Even though he has little money and less name identification, Roco said his candidacy will attract support from conservatives, particularly those opposed to same-gender civil unions and gay marriage.

"I represent certain values, and there are definitely people in Hawaii who are not being spoken for," he said.

State Republican Party chairman Jonah Kaauwai, admiringly calls Inouye "the godfather" of Hawaii politics and acknowledges he will be difficult to beat. Yet he insists the senator's time has come and gone.

"He's a necessary evil because we depend on him fiscally even though all of the money that he brings into Hawaii is pork," Kaauwai said.

That's something Inouye is proud of, describing himself as "the No. 1 earmarks guy in the U.S. Congress."

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But the senator actually grabbed the second highest amount of total earmarks - worth $392.4 million - in fiscal year 2010 appropriation bills, about $105 million less than Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington D.C. watchdog organization.

While Inouye at times is criticized for his earmarking prowess, those dollars gain him support among voters and influential power brokers, regardless of party affiliation, said Neal Milner, a UH political scientist. Still, Milner added, earmarks only explain part of the senator's enduring appeal.

Inouye lost his right arm during War World II, and decades later was awarded the Medal of Honor for his service. He got his political start in the territorial Legislature. He later was elected to the U.S. House and in 1962, to the Senate.

Inouye became an icon symbolizing both the social and political upheaval of the mid- to late-1950s that led to statehood, and the increase in the political power of Japanese Americans, resulting in near-total Democratic control over Hawaii's politics since statehood in 1959, Milner said.

Inouye himself says he wants a ninth term because he can help pull the country out of its current economic doldrums.

"In my capacity as chairman of the appropriations committee, I would be called upon to play some role," he said in an interview.

That probably comes as good news to national Democratic officials, who have seen at least four Democratic Senate incumbents announce their retirements in recent months while others are likely to face vigorous GOP competition this fall.

Hovering over discussions about Inouye's latest campaign is his age and health.

He appears spry though diminutive. He frequently uses a cane - the result of a fractured knee suffered in 2008 while practicing the tango before wedding his second wife, Irene Hirano Inouye.

"Obviously, time slows people down," said Dante Carpenter, interim chairman of the state Democratic Party. "But by the same token, he seems to not have lost a great deal of speed in his step and his brain obviously is perking on all cylinders."

The senator said longevity has its benefits.

"If you know anything about Washington, with my seniority and with my chairmanship of the committees, I think it will make a little difference," Inouye said. "I would think that at this stage, I can be of greater assistance to the people of Hawaii."

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