Saturday, June 09, 2007

Obama, Thompson enjoy early buzz in this Washington

By David Ammons for the Bellingham Herald:

OLYMPIA, WASHINGTON - Barack Obama and Fred Thompson have the early "buzz" among party faithful as Washington slowly joins the nation's long marathon race to pick our presidential finalists.

But that could be fleeting. Neither party has a candidate with clear front-runner status in the Evergreen State - Republican Thompson of "Law & Order" fame hasn't even announced yet and few of the candidates have stumped here. Both parties are blessed - or cursed - with huge fields of presidential wannabes and most candidates are focused on the early states like Iowa and New Hampshire.

Although early picks have been common here, the state's political establishment and grass-roots activists are in no rush to anoint favorites this time around.

In 2004, Democratic movers and shakers here were crazy about Howard Dean and shifted to John Kerry only after Dean's screaming meltdown in Iowa. And the GOP establishment here was very early in backing George W. Bush in 2000. But this time around, the big dogs in both parties are still waiting and watching.

Independent pollster Stuart Elway says despite the 24-7 news coverage of the Campaign '08, most folks in the Northwest won't be paying much attention to presidential politics until the state primary in August reminds them that campaigns and elections are rolling back around.

"It's a different speed we seem to be operating at," says state GOP Chairman Luke Esser.

"Everyone seems to be waiting for it to thin out," and even the biggest political junkies don't seem to be dividing into camps yet, says Democratic campaign expert Terry Thompson.

With the first wide-open race since 1952, the field could take months to shake out, says elections expert Todd Donovan of Western Washington University.

"The average person either has very weakly held preferences or doesn't even know all of these people," Donovan says. "I mean, Chris Dodd? Richardson? Joe Biden? Even Obama? Who's he?"

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BATTLEGROUND ... SOMETIME

Even though Washington is often considered a "blue" state and hasn't voted Republican for president since Reagan in '84, it also has an independent streak and is likely to be in play next year.

So far, though, the presidentials are viewing Washington as a mid-sized prize to pursue after the early rush of states vote in caucuses and primaries in January and on Tsunami Tuesday on Feb. 5. Both parties hold caucuses here on Feb. 9 and will follow up with a primary, probably a week or two later.

For now, according to party leaders and independent observers, the field is mushy in Washington.

Some Democratic partisans seem to be star-struck with Obama, the Illinois senator who would be the first black president.

"The only signs and bumper stickers I see around the state are for Obama, and the students on campus are wearing Obama T-shirts," Donovan says.

Obama has been to the Seattle area twice in recent months, drawing large and enthusiastic crowds. The early spike of interest probably bespeaks a hunger for change, and voters seem drawn by Obama's talk of healing the partisan warfare, says Elway.

But others will try for a market share, too, probably combining Washington and Oregon stopovers when they're in the West to court California.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, a frequent visitor here since her husband's first White House bid in 1992, raised about $100,000 in Seattle for her Senate re-election last year and has a wide following. Washington has a strong tradition of backing women, and has a female governor and two female U.S. senators.

Former Sen. John Edwards, the 2004 vice presidential nominee who helped carry the state, has stumped here and is quite popular in the labor community and among the state's politically active trial lawyers.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has a killer resume and is moving up in Washington, party leaders say.

"In Washington state, from my conversations with people it looks like John Edwards and Barack Obama in the top tier, followed closely by Hillary Clinton and Bill Richardson," says state Democratic Chairman Dwight Pelz. "Obama and Edwards seem to be splitting the Dean vote from last time."

Thompson, the Democratic consultant, sees Clinton and Obama are leading the pack, with Edwards a strong third, a view backed up by a recent poll.

Pelz, an early Dean backer in 2004, isn't taking sides now. Neither is Gov. Chris Gregoire, Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell or any of the House delegation except for Rep. Adam Smith, who's for Obama.

Asked who he likes, Pelz says, "We have an embarrassment of riches, and the other side just has embarrassments."

A Democratic postscript: Although he seems unlikely to run, former Vice President Al Gore, remains the wild card in the race and would instantly pick up a huge following here, Thompson says.

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AFTER DUBYA ...

Republicans, meanwhile, are happy with the dogfight on the Democratic side and most presume that a polarizing Clinton will be nominated. As for their own crop, there's big fascination with Thompson, who won a recent party straw poll and is a darling of talk radio.

"Thompson hasn't been through the fire, but he gets to be the favorite because everyone projects onto him whatever they want to see," Elway says. "They see Ronald Reagan."

"He's got the buzz and the grass roots," says state GOP Chairman Luke Esser. "But there's no getting around the fact that McCain and Romney and Giuliani are all getting organized here."

Elway theorizes that Thompson may win the conservative bloc because the other three have past or present views that raise their hackles, like abortion, gay rights and immigration.

McCain, the earliest to organize here, has visited his fellow westerners many times and former Gov. Mitt Romney and former New York Mayor Giuliani both plan fundraising visits to the Seattle-Bellevue area later this month.

A media poll showed Giuliani and McCain in front, with Thompson in third and Romney well back, which sounds about right to Esser. But he says that the situation is fluid.

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