Target: Slade

Democrats say Gorton's vulnerable, but talk is cheap.

He wants immigration officials to relax enforcement in Washington farm country to maintain the supply of cheap migrant labor. While a recent gun control bill was being debated on the Senate floor, he was back in his home state holding a pair of fund-raisers featuring National Rifle Association president Charlton Heston. He stuck a rider exempting a gold-mining company from federal laws on an aid bill for Kosovo refugees, then voted against the whole mess because it was a Democratic war to start with.

Yep, Slade's back.

And you'd think that angry liberals would have a plan to oust Washington's senior senator, Republican Slade Gorton, when he comes back for another term next year.

Not necessarily. State Insurance Commissioner Deborah Senn is the only declared Demo thus far for Gorton's seat. Most of the high-profile news on the Democratic side of this race has been candidates opting out of the race: US Rep. Adam Smith, Attorney General Christine Gregoire, King County Executive Ron Sims (Gorton's 1994 opponent).

Even the recent speculation surrounding US Rep. Jim McDermott and his interest in the race (he mailed an exploratory letter to supporters this month and plans to make a decision on challenging Gorton by midsummer) has been mainly about which Seattle Democrats would line up for the chance to grab McDermott's House seat.

So, with the November 2000 final election more than 16 months in the future, why does this all seem like last-minute maneuvering? Because the definition of a "viable" Democratic candidate is linked to money—the hard-driving incumbent is expected to raise more than $8 million for his campaign. "It's so money-driven," says Don McDonough, a Seattle political consultant known for his work with Democratic candidates. "It's not a matter of how smart you are, whether you have ideas. It's a matter of whether you can get $8 million and run enough television to win.

"Who's our $8 million Democrat? That's our question we don't know the answer to yet."

The money will be needed to bring a candidate's statewide name recognition up close to Gorton's level. A preliminary poll showed that only 38 percent of the voters knew Senn's name, while 98 percent recognized Gorton's. By comparison, former wrestler and radio commentator Jesse Ventura started his long-shot race for Minnesota governor with a 64 percent name recognition rating.

With all the talk of how 2000 is the Democrats' year to finally topple the 72-year-old incumbent, Republicans are amused with their rivals' anemic candidate search. "It's funny, because they love to say how vulnerable they believe [Gorton] is, but clearly they recognize his strength as a candidate," says Brett Bader, a Bellevue consultant who works with Republican candidates.

Calling the Democratic field "a B-list of players," Bader cites the cool response that Senn has gotten within her own party. "Clearly the search is on within the Democratic Party to find a stronger candidate," he says.

Consultants and campaign watchers around the state have already compiled a list of scenarios, including one that sees Gorton step aside to let US Rep. Jennifer Dunn, the Republican Party's rising star, try to move up to the Senate. But, most involve the possible Democratic candidates, starting with:

Deborah Senn: The two-term insurance commissioner has won on the state level, but her combative, headline-grabbing ways have alienated some within the Democratic leadership. No matter, says McDonough. "There are a lot of insiders who don't like her, but that in and of itself doesn't mean she'd be a poor candidate. From my experience, insiders and their conventional wisdom are almost always wrong."

Senn earns points as a candidate who will match Gorton's negative advertising and constant campaign attacks. "Slade Gorton is like the mean kid on the block—he's going to beat up on anybody in this race," says one Democratic officeholder. Whoever is running against him has to be able to take and give back twice as much." The jury will remain out on Senn until she proves she can raise money—and lots of it.

Bill Marler: The prominent attorney and Democratic fund-raiser has been touring the state, gauging interest in a run. The test here is whether this relative unknown has a big enough bank account to drop at least $2 million into his own race. "He's a promising up-and-comer, but that's still a long jump from up-and-comer to United States senator," says Cathy Allen, a Seattle consultant who works with Democratic candidates. Bader jokes about "Bill Marler getting his yawns around the state" and says he considers the little-known attorney a non-starter.

Phil Talmadge: The former state legislator is rumored to be growing tired of the State Supreme Court after less than a term there. However, most observers see him as a more likely candidate for McDermott's House seat, if the incumbent decides to challenge Gorton. Talmadge still has the vestiges of his powerful campaign organization and has won a statewide race, but a comparatively low profile compared with some of the other Democrat hopefuls. "Bring him on," says Bader.

Jim McDermott: Lost three races for governor when he was a powerful state senator, the most recent in 1984, when he got bounced in the primary. His heart would be in the race; McDermott and Gorton are bitter political enemies. But can the legislator Republican opponents dismissed as "a liberal psychologist from Seattle" during his gubernatorial tries play in Cle Elum? "He's just way too tied to the Seattle establishment," sighs one observer.

Maria Cantwell: The one-term US representative split politics and made a fortune in the computer industry after losing her 1st District seat to Rick White in 1994. She's an attractive candidate—young, moderate, and well-spoken—but hasn't been active in the Democratic Party since leaving office and is a relative unknown statewide. She'd have to dig deep into her computer fortune and put at least $2 million of her own money in the race.

Mike Lowry: The former governor loves to be the topic of political speculation, but his single term in Olympia was not a happy one and most observers don't see him as a serious contender. He's still a possibility to run for McDermott's house seat if it becomes open.

Ron Sims: The King County executive has shooed Democrat bigwigs away from his door before, but he will be asked again to consider challenging Gorton if Senn's campaign fizzles.

Gary Locke: The most intriguing scenario yet sees the popular incumbent governor bolting Olympia for the US Senate race. He's already got Gorton-like name recognition, he's a proven money raiser, and he will already be collecting cash for his re-election, which could be transferred to a Senate campaign. One insider says Locke could enter the race as late as next April (after the state Legislature session). "The rest of those candidates would have to spend a year of solid campaigning, just to get to where Locke already is."

One thing all these scenarios have in common (except the last-minute Gary Locketo-the-rescue script) is that a Democratic front-runner needs to appear quickly. "The clock is ticking," says Bader. "With the necessity of fund raising, candidates really don't have a whole lot longer to make their mind up." Look for the race to shape up by late summer, by which time Senn's fund-raising abilities and McDermott's determination to move up to the Senate will have been tested.

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