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Originally published Thursday, January 5, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Joni Balter / Seattle Times editorial columnist

With enemies like Stevens, Cantwell has lots of friends

Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, recently pitted in a battle of wits and legislative jujitsu with Alaska's bullyish Sen. Ted Stevens, should send...

Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, recently pitted in a battle of wits and legislative jujitsu with Alaska's bullyish Sen. Ted Stevens, should send the senator from the north a dozen roses, a box of See's candy, maybe a smoked salmon from Pike Place Market.

Cantwell never had it so good until she had it so bad with Stevens. Cantwell and Stevens have been fighting over drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Stevens insists drilling be allowed; Cantwell insists otherwise.

In the latest round, Cantwell won a stunning victory, surprising even herself by collecting enough votes, including two from Republicans, to force removal of a drilling provision from a nonrelated military-spending bill.

That likely is not the end of it, because Stevens is so adamant about drilling. But the duel with Stevens is the best thing to happen to Cantwell in a long time.

In November, Cantwell is expected to face a vigorous challenge from a fresh Republican newcomer, Mike McGavick, former CEO of Safeco who earlier served as chief of staff to then-Sen. Slade Gorton.

Washington voters probably will be open-minded toward a new Republican face such as McGavick. Who knows how much payback toward Democrats lies in voters' hearts over the contentious 2004 governor' race.

Verbal fisticuffs with Stevens put Cantwell in good stead because Stevens has been so overbearing and high-schoolish about it. He put Cantwell on the national political map.

Stevens, known for his histrionics, irritability and his power in the Senate, described the December day of the vote blocking drilling in ANWR as the saddest of his life. That day, he came to work wearing his Incredible Hulk tie, which he wears whenever he is in heavy battle over issues he really cares about. He cares a lot about drilling in the Arctic.

Afterward, he threatened retaliatory campaigning against those who voted against him and singled out Cantwell for a particularly vicious public spanking.

"I'm sure the senator from Washington will enjoy my visits to Washington because I am going to visit there often," he warned.

Cantwell should pay his way and underwrite his stay in a four-star hotel. Come early, stay late. Before the fight with Stevens, she had a few highlights to brag about in her five-year Senate term, but none so high-profile and appealing to moderate, environmentally oriented voters in Washington's suburbs, where elections are decided these days.

She was persuasive and dogged in the fight against Enron on behalf of the ratepayers of Snohomish County. She was persuasive and dogged again questioning oil-company executives about gasoline prices.

In the fight against Stevens, she is the little female freshman senator up against a 37-year Senate veteran and powerhouse. She is the David to his Goliath. He's the Big Bad Alaskan Wolf to her Little Red Riding Hood.

Even when Cantwell was a dot-com millionaire/RealNetworks executive during her 2000 campaign against Sen. Gorton, she couldn't buy the fawning praise she is getting now in editorials nationwide and in letters to the editor.

With 10 months to go, the political landscape in the Senate race will change several times before a vote is cast. If the election were held today, McGavick would be weighed down by President Bush, who is wildly unpopular in our state. My guess is Bush will pull a lot of troops out of Iraq and rebound a bit by November.

Party elders handed Cantwell the leadership role on ANWR because she is up for re-election and knows energy issues. She earned a spot on the energy committee and battled unsuccessfully last spring to keep drilling out of a budget bill.

But last fall, moderate House Republicans refused to allow Arctic drilling to be included in that bill, so Stevens maneuvered to include it in the military-spending bill.

That is when Cantwell, along with Sens. John Kerry and Joe Lieberman, went to work to separate drilling from military spending. Though Stevens still has other cards to play, his rivals' success is a bona fide big deal.

Meantime, Cantwell ought to be wrapping gifts and writing a thank-you note to the overbearing, self-styled senatorial hulk from Alaska. In his anger and wrath, he has been very very good to her.

Joni Balter's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is jbalter@seattletimes.com

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