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Originally published September 18, 2010 at 10:05 PM | Page modified September 20, 2010 at 9:54 AM

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GOP challenger John Koster faces off against Rick Larsen in 2nd Congressional District

Republican John Koster is running a strong challenge against Democratic U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen in the 2nd Congressional District. The two have faced off before, when Larsen beat Koster 10 years ago for what was then an open seat.

Times Snohomish County reporter

They don't much like each other.

In a recent television debate, Democratic Rep. Rick Larsen maintained a steely gaze and avoided eye contact with his Republican challenger, Snohomish County Councilman John Koster. There were no pleasantries.

Koster described Larsen afterward as "barely cordial," the more remarkable because the two hail from the same small town — Arlington — and have crossed paths politically for more than a decade.

The apparent chill may be a measure of the challenge Koster is presenting the five-term incumbent in the race for the 2nd Congressional District seat, and the seriousness with which Larsen intends to respond.

Koster outpolled Larsen by 298 votes in the August primary and last week earned recognition from the National Republican Congressional Committee, which paves the way for party financing in the general election. Koster has raised almost $500,000, still far below Larsen's $1.1 million but enough to boost Koster's profile nationally.

Congressional Quarterly, which handicaps races nationally, changed its 2nd District projection after Koster's strong showing in the primary from "incumbent virtually certain to win" to "likely Democratic."

Koster, who's been endorsed by Sarah Palin, Ron Paul and state tea-party activists, hopes to ride the national wave of conservative Republicans who have upset moderate opponents. A recent KING-TV poll showed Koster leading Larsen 50 to 46 percent, with the rest undecided and a margin of error of 4 percent.

Both candidates agree that independent voters will be crucial in a district that stretches from suburban South Snohomish County, through the rural farmlands of Skagit County, to the liberal bastion of Western Washington University in Bellingham.

Larsen's campaign has focused on his work to bring jobs to the district, including trying to land the Air Force air-tanker contract for Boeing and his support for a federal bill that would expand credit to small businesses.

"No one in this campaign needs a poll to tell them independents are frustrated with the economy," he said.

Koster, who on the campaign trail hammers at runaway government spending, mounting federal debt and passage of a health-care bill he labels "socialist," thinks the independent voters will swing his way.

"People are unhappy with the direction the country is headed. They don't think Larsen is listening," he said.

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But Larsen has developed a reputation as a tough campaigner who knows how to strike back. Ten years ago, after placing second in the primary to Koster for what was then an open seat, Larsen unleashed a torrent of attack ads that hit Koster's conservative social views, including his opposition to abortion rights. Larsen beat Koster in the general election 50 to 46 percent.

In four subsequent campaigns, Larsen buried other Republican opponents under negative ads that the challengers said distorted their actual views.

Voters got their first glimpse of Larsen's campaign tactics this week in new radio and TV ads that accused Koster of wanting to privatize Social Security.

Koster quickly released a statement saying, "I do not support privatization of Social Security" and in an interview said the government has a commitment to people who have paid into the program.

But Koster has advocated individual retirement accounts and health savings accounts as more fiscally sound alternatives to government spending on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. He reiterated his position that those alternatives should be considered "going forward."

Larsen's hard-hitting ads stand in contrast to his manner on the campaign trail where he comes across as the dad next door, low-key and thoughtful, ready to use the power of incumbency to help his constituents.

Over Labor Day weekend, the congressman door-belled a Lake Stevens neighborhood that included a public-housing complex, as well as more upscale suburban homes.

One resident, who described herself as one of the "working poor," noted that a grown son and a niece with two children were living with her and her husband because neither relative could find work.

Larsen listened to a 10-year saga of economic struggle without interrupting, far longer than most politicians with a walking list of undecided voters would likely have stood still.

"You're describing a tough situation," he finally said. "I want you to know that I'm here for you."

At the apartment of a retired senior, he promised to phone the agency that operated the complex and urge needed repairs. At each door he asked if he could count on the resident's vote. Almost all said yes.

Koster spent the same Saturday in front of the Republican booth at the Evergreen State Fair in Monroe, greeting old friends from his years as a dairy farmer, as well as voters who tell him they've grown disenchanted with Larsen.

Koster comes across as more passionate, more energetic and more ideological than Larsen. He wants the U.S. out of the United Nations. He wants to eliminate the Department of Education and the Internal Revenue Service (he favors a flat tax). He opposed the Wall Street bailout and federal stimulus package, both of which Larsen supported.

Koster directs passers-by at the fair to a federal debt clock that ticks upward by the second.

"What's Larsen been doing for the past 10 years?" Koster asks. "A trillion here and a trillion there starts to add up. I'd like to see some results."

Matt Barreto, an associate professor of political science at the University of Washington, thinks Koster faces an uphill fight. He notes that in the August primary, Larsen and two Democratic challengers got a combined 52 percent, without Larsen running a significant campaign.

Koster clearly relishes the challenge.

"It's game on," he said.

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or lthompson@seattletimes.com

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