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Sunday, February 26, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Stating their case

McGavick must convince W. Washington voters he's mainstream

Seattle Times editorial columnist

Former Safeco CEO Mike McGavick is the Republicans' best hope in six years to grab a U.S. Senate seat in Democratic-leaning Washington state. McGavick is young, smart and speaks moderate GOP-ese. He has the distinction of being fresh and new and therefore a candidate with minimal baggage.

Eight months before the U.S. Senate election in Washington, President George Bush is wildly unpopular in our state. McGavick mentions his Republican status and, subliminally, his connection to Bush only in the last seconds of an introductory TV ad. But Democrats will remind voters at every turn McGavick is another vote for Bush and the equally unpopular Republican Congress.

Therefore, if McGavick wants to beat Democratic incumbent Maria Cantwell in suburban King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, where the 2006 election will be decided, he has to play against type. He has to offer a mainstream GOP message clear and distinct from the Bush White House.

McGavick largely agrees with the president on the Iraq war, a position problematic in Western Washington, where voters are ready to hear the words "end game." McGavick believes it is foolish to announce a timetable for leaving because it reveals too much.

He also agrees with Bush on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, on renewal of the Patriot Act, on confirmation of Samuel Alito to the U.S. Supreme Court.

McGavick distinguishes himself from Bush, however, by being moderately pro-choice. He is for a woman's right to choose, but against federal funding for abortion, which unnerves those who bristle at limiting rights for a class of women. He won't say if Roe v. Wade should be overturned. His limited pro-choice stance must be reconciled with his support for Alito, who is almost certainly another vote to overturn Roe.

The candidate distinguishes himself further by pledging to run a positive campaign. Voters love that kind of thing. Such a pledge, however, is easier said than done.

He said he would not malign his hometown of Seattle, as his previous boss, former Sen. Slade Gorton, did in a few Senate contests. As soon as McGavick got to Spokane last month, he blew it.

"I like to say I was born in Seattle when you weren't embarrassed to say you were from Seattle," he told a Spokane audience. McGavick says he used the line as an ice-breaker in Eastern Washington because folks there don't like Seattle. He is a proud Seattle boy who as Safeco's leader kept the company headquartered in Seattle instead of Redmond.

By promising a positive campaign, he has placed the onus on himself to avoid comments that appear like the same old cheap shot.

To win, McGavick should take a page from other successful politicians, such as U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Republican whom Democrats and independents love because he speaks his mind. McCain has opposed Bush on lobbying reform, campaign-finance reform and the environment.

McGavick is more of an environmentalist than Bush, too. He is not certain global warming exists, but believes climate changes are going on. He didn't like the details of the Kyoto agreement but felt the U.S. should not have walked away from negotiations, either.

Popular pols, especially in the American West, have to buck conventional descriptions. The Democratic governor from McCain's Republican-leaning state, Janet Napolitano, has very high approval ratings because she sounds a bit like the other party in approach. Time magazine named her one of America's five best governors, saying, "In her first week on the job, Napolitano took on the state's budget-deficit crisis. She presented a proposal that eliminated the $1 billion deficit without a tax increase." She is a pro-business centrist.

It's not complicated. Triangulate, as in steal, the best lines from the other party's songbook. Use your best lines, too.

Am I telling a Republican to look and act like a Democrat? Yes, but only to a degree. A true conservative Republican will not win next fall in this state.

If McGavick really wants to play against type, he ought not to hide on local issues. He could be a party leader on the dumb $30 car-tab initiative, which will undo about a third of the road-improvement money approved by the 2005 Legislature.

Distinguish, distinguish, distinguish.

McGavick is playing a smarter numbers game than Gorton did. The former senator got roughly 24 percent of the vote in Seattle. McGavick, by running from a Seattle base, will improve on that.

If he gets, say, 33 percent of the Seattle vote, he could gain roughly 25,000 additional votes — a different race than Gorton's 2000 cliffhanger against Cantwell, which she won by 2,229 votes.

Some national political observers consider McGavick one of the best Republican candidates this year. But he is running in a difficult year in a blue state. To win, he has to veer more dramatically toward the political middle — more than he may be comfortable doing.

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

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