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Originally published Wednesday, February 24, 2010 at 4:11 PM

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Joni Balter / Seattle Times editorial columnist

Rossi paying attention to short-attention-span voters

The national and local political mood is swinging faster than ever. Obama adoration turned rapidly into Obama fear. In our state, Republicans hope Dino Rossi will run against Sen. Patty Murray so they can party like it's 1994.

Seattle Times editorial columnist

Most Americans vividly remember the wildly upbeat feelings surrounding President Obama's inauguration 13 months ago. The music, the speeches, the excited throngs on the National Mall — all of it, in my case, underscored by an overwhelming feeling that expectations were impossibly high.

Obama represented many things vast numbers of voters wanted. But by late summer, as health care began to implode, some voters already were fed up. Seven or eight months to fix a recession/depression and two wars? Well, yeah, the attention span is quite short.

Health-care reform is not only complicated, it's scary. Obama failed to connect reform and the economy. The House and Senate took negotiations on the plan into a backroom. The few hundred people who would have watched on C-Span mattered not. The secrecy counted a ton.

Now, the rage, and that is the right word, is the Tea Party, an amorphous group known mostly for its collective anger. Conservatives and even some independents found a way to express legitimate angst about the economy, taxes and a variety of things they cannot control.

Few of us can do much about inexplicable credit-card charges, taxes, banks hoarding money and bonuses for the louts who caused the economic meltdown. But we can be angry at politicians everywhere.

Voters' short attention span, the nonstop news market and legitimate worry about the deficit combine with deep economic problems to create huge swings in the electorate's mood.

Three months ago, voters would have chortled at the far-fetched idea that two-time gubernatorial candidate and former state Sen. Dino Rossi could run against Sen. Patty Murray this fall and have a prayer. Now, polls show Rossi the only Republican with a shot. I spoke with him recently and came away convinced he is eager to run, but not in a hurry. He has a difficult calculation to make.

Rossi can look to the Tea Party and be inspired that Republicans and even a few swing voters are fired up enough to support change. Rossi is not a fresh face, but he is a Washington, D.C., outsider. He is a Republican, not a Tea Party guy, but needs those voters to succeed.

Watch this movement twist and turn. When an Asotin County Tea Party-ite called for Murray to be hung, that shameful outburst had potential to be transformative. Independent voters do not want to be pals with anyone who talks like that!

The Tea Party is like a hot fire for a Republican. Stand next to it and feel its warmth, but put your hand too close and get burned. Overnight, unbridled populism becomes hideous anger.

Consider Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, the darling of conservatives last week who supposedly transformed into a turncoat this week for supporting a reasonable jobs bill. Flip and flop.

In our state, Murray has yet to appear on a substantial list of vulnerable senators, and Rossi has yet to declare his candidacy. If he does, that could change. He tells people he has millions of dollars of name familiarity, which is true. He can legally delay until June, though that is politically very late.

Republicans wonder if the next election cycle might be like 1994, when Washington's congressional delegation swung from eight Democrats and one Republican to seven Republicans and two Democrats. Republicans want to be ready, in case.

In a bluish state such as ours, Republicans have a hard time getting elected statewide — Rossi knows that better than anyone. He needs sustained discontent and clamor for change.

"Overall, the political environment has deteriorated greatly for Democrats in the last year," says Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "What Rossi needs is for that environment to hold, or, ideally, to deteriorate further for Democrats."

As always, eyes are on swing voters. Many are peeved at Congress, the federal deficit, state government, the overall direction of the state and country.

It's all moving so quickly. If the national psyche changed so dramatically in 13 months since the inauguration, who knows how fast the mood will swing again toward the newest overriding sentiment by next fall. Crash helmets recommended.

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

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