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Originally published Sunday, February 26, 2012 at 7:58 PM

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Would Inslee have better shot if he left House post early?

Rumors that U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee may resign from Congress to campaign full time for the governor's office have subsided. But the question lingers: Could Inslee bolster his chances of moving into the governor's mansion by moving out of Washington, D.C?

Seattle Times Washington bureau

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doesn't matter if he stays or goes - either way he will be unemployed in January MORE
Please people do not let this guy into the gov's mansion. He is a horrible politician. MORE
He'd have an even better shot if he had an IQ over 95 and an original thought in his... MORE

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WASHINGTON — Last month, with some polls showing U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee trailing his Republican foe in the governor's race, rumors surfaced that the seven-term Democrat may quit Congress to campaign full time.

Inslee's camp swiftly shot down the whispers. Yet the question lingers: Could Inslee bolster his chances of moving into the governor's mansion by moving out of Washington, D.C?

After all, Inslee's campaign has blamed his lagging poll numbers on higher name recognition that his opponent, Attorney General Rob McKenna, enjoys as a two-term statewide office holder.

Giving up his seat early — his term ends next January — would rid Inslee's transcontinental commute and free up more time to raise money and troll for votes.

Forfeiting office might seem a surer path to victory. Of the 10 members of Congress who ran for governor in 2010, only two, Neil Abercrombie, of Hawaii and Nathan Deal, of Georgia, quit their day jobs to do so. Both are now governors. Of the eight others who remained in Congress, six lost.

Still, resigning carries risks, too. Abercrombie's opponents, for instance, slammed him as a quitter. And the Democrat's victory ended up stinging his party; a special election for Abercrombie's House seat was won by a Republican, the first time in more than 20 years that Hawaii sent a GOP member to Congress.

"I would not advise him to quit," said Paul Berendt, former head of the Washington state Democratic Party who has known Inslee for years. "People expect you to stick with your commitments."

Berendt acknowledges that time spent in the other Washington eats into Inslee's campaign efforts. But he notes that McKenna is keeping his job, too, and that both men "are crisscrossing the state pretty aggressively despite their other responsibilities."

Juggling a congressional seat and a campaign is probably easier than with many other jobs, what with the four-day workweek and frequent recesses, including a month off in summer and winter.

But if Inslee, 61, of Bainbridge Island, were to resign by March 6, Gov. Gregoire would have to order a special election. That could set off an unwelcome scramble among the half dozen candidates in the 1st District race, who are still jostling to break out of the crowded pack. If Inslee were to step down March 7 or later, his seat would remain vacant until after the November elections.

Inslee's route to Olympia would be unorthodox. Most of the recent Washington governors were former public executives. Democrat Gary Locke and Republican John Spellman had been King County executives, and Booth Gardner held the same post in Pierce County. Gregoire was a three-term attorney general.

Mike Lowry did serve in the U.S. House, but he was out of office when he was elected governor in 1993. The last time a sitting member of Congress was elected Washington governor was in 1944, when Monrad Wallgren resigned from the Senate to take office.

Inslee, a lawyer, has been in Congress continuously since 1999. He also represented the 4th Congressional District from Yakima for a single term in 1993-95 after leaving the Washington state House of Representatives.

Ed Goeas, a national Republican strategist, said running for governor or president is different from running for the House or the Senate. With the former, voters are seeking leaders, not legislators, Goeas said.

Some Democrats in the state privately fret that McKenna has become the putative front-runner despite holding conservative stances that are more at odds with many voters' positions in a largely Democratic state. Spellman, who was elected in 1980, was the last Republican governor.

But Goeas said for candidates seeking a governor's office, policy positions may matter less than whether voters judge them to be executive material.

That leap can be a stretch for many legislators, said Goeas, chief executive of The Tarrance Group, a polling and research firm in Alexandria, Va., whose clients have included Sen. John McCain, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and dozens of members of Congress.

"There is a reason why Obama was the first (sitting) U.S. senator to be elected president since John F. Kennedy," he said.

At the same time, Goeas disagrees that being an incumbent in Congress — whose approval rating is lower than the freezing temperature — is an automatic handicap. Historically, voters return to Congress about nine of every 10 House members who run for re-election.

Bill Kaneko, Abercrombie's gubernatorial campaign manager, said Abercrombie was driven to leave Congress 10 months early by the grind of weekly 10-hour flights to and from Hawaii. Abercrombie, 73, typically left Capitol Hill on Friday and returned on a red-eye flight Tuesday morning.

"He was tired," said Kaneko, a government-relations lawyer in Honolulu. "He needed to be home and to devote his whole attention to running for governor."

Kaneko said Abercrombie's decision exacted a price. Even his fellow Democratic primary opponent labeled Abercrombie a quitter. His resignation also opened the door for Charles Djou, a conservative Honolulu City Councilmember, to edge out two key feuding Democratic candidates to fill the vacated House seat.

Still, Kaneko said, the political flak proved worth it for Abercrombie.

"He won."

Seattle Times news researcher David Turim contributed to this report.

Kyung Song: 202-662-7455 or ksong@seattletimes.com

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