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Deep Political Divide Splits Washington State

Obama and McCain
An increasingly blue state on the national electoral map, Washington hasn't voted for a Republican for president since Ronald Reagan in 1984.
(ABC News Photo Illustration)

If this election is about change, as Barack Obama and John McCain say, Democrats here in Washington state are asking voters not to go too far.

An increasingly blue state on the national electoral map, Washington hasn't voted for a Republican for president since Ronald Reagan in 1984.

Washington is more evenly split politically when it comes to local politics, and a close rematch in the governor's race is proving that once again.

First-term Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire, 61, who won by 133 votes out of 2.8 million cast, is facing the man she beat in 2004, Republican Dino Rossi, in a tough re-election fight.

"It's hard to be running with a national message of change and still turn around and say, 'We don't want any here,' " says Cathy Allen, a Democratic political consultant in Seattle.

Rossi, a former state senator, has been hitting Gregoire with calls for change in TV ads. Rossi, 49, points out that under Gregoire, the state has seen higher unemployment, an increase in the gasoline tax, rising business failures and a $3.2 billion deficit.

"If this is what Chris Gregoire did in four years, do you really want to see what she can do in eight?" one Rossi ad asks.

Gregoire has been countering with the difference between the two on social issues. A former state attorney general, she points out in ads that Rossi opposes abortion: "In these tough times, don't turn back the clock. Dino Rossi is not the change we need."

The two campaigns are spending more than $20 million, making it impossible to miss their TV ads and creating dismay among some voters.

"I really don't want to vote for either one," says Kristen Ballou, a mother from Kent who supports McCain. "The governor's race is ugly."

Washington's politics reflect a divide between Seattle, overwhelmingly Democratic and liberal, and the area east of the Cascade Mountains, where Republicans tend to do well and at least one poll shows Rossi besting Gregoire 2-1.

Both presidential and governor's races may be decided in this in-between battleground east of Seattle and Lake Washington.

It is an area whose residents include Bill Gates, the Microsoft founder. It includes the high-tech, high-growth city of Bellevue, and Renton, where Boeing produces its 737 jetliners.

Interviews with voters here showed sharp divisions over the presidential race but also a willingness among many voters to split their tickets.

"The last two years, I have been very disgusted with where we've ended up," says Jason Thiry, 31, a regional vice president of a carpeting company from Renton who voted for President Bush four years ago.

This time, he says he and his wife will support Obama. But the Democratic governor has not completed her sale to Thiry, who holds her accountable for the region's economic problems.

"It's pretty bad. It's on her watch, too," he says.

Rachael Clemmons, 33, a nurse from Renton, is eager to vote for Obama. She has a 6-year-old daughter with a heart condition and says keeping her health insurance is her biggest concern.

Gregoire cannot yet count on her vote. "I see all these ads on TV, and I don't know what to believe," she says.

Sometimes the ads can have unintended effects.

Tharon Knittle, 35, a mother from Renton supporting McCain, said she decided to vote for Rossi for governor because she saw ads saying he opposes abortion — ads run by Gregoire, his opponent. Knittle says she figures if Rossi opposes abortion, as she does, "the other policies will fall in line more with what I feel."

Yet Rossi hasn't completed the sale with some McCain voters.

Robert Johnston, 51, a writer and transplanted Southerner now in Renton, says he has followed the campaign closely and is "leaning toward McCain."

"He's been tried by fire, and I think our country needs the experience, integrity and courage McCain has to offer," Johnston says. Yet he is attracted to Gregoire by her character as well.

"I'm a conservative in a lot of areas, but I have a real high opinion of Gov. Gregoire and her honesty," Johnston says. "There is something about her — I think her integrity is unquestioned."

Two October polls, by Survey USA and Rasmussen, show Gregoire ahead by 1 and 2 percentage points respectively, within the margins of error.

Still, the prospect of Obama voters turning the Democratic governor out of office is alarming to her partisans, local political observers say.

Luke Esser, state Republican Party chairman, says straight-ticket voting isn't expected in Washington, where voters don't register by party: "In this state, it's every candidate for him or herself," he says.

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