State Issues Can Upend
by Neil Modie
When Sen. John McCain brings his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination to Washington, it's a safe bet that if the subject of breaching Snake River dams comes up, he won't hesitate to condemn it.
In 2000, his ambivalence about the salmon-recovery scheme before Washington's presidential primary helped George W. Bush defeat him here. Some Republicans think it served to bury McCain's already faltering candidacy.
It was an example of how a parochial issue in a single state can upend a presidential campaign and why Washington's caucuses Saturday could help shape the race in the aftermath of Tuesday's volatile mega-Super Tuesday contests in 24 states.
With the candidates focused on Tuesday and not much beyond, their local supporters are waiting for word about whether and when they'll show up here.
Either or both of the Democratic candidates, Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, are considered likely to make stops in Washington before Saturday's caucuses. The GOP candidates -- if they still have a race come Wednesday morning -- could drop by sometime before the state's Feb. 19 presidential primary. Its results count only on the Republican side.
McCain plans to visit Eastern Washington after he returns from a European trip next Sunday but before Feb. 19, Chris Fidler, a local aide, said.
Washington could make or break a candidate, as it arguably did in 2000 as well as in 2004 when Sen. John Kerry's Democratic caucus victory here sealed the defeat of anti-war populist Howard Dean.
When McCain was asked in 2000 about taking down the dams to improve salmon runs, he said he would "wait to see the science before I make a final decision." Bush's strategists saw an opportunity to demonize the Arizonan in Republican Eastern Washington, where dams provide irrigation and a means to barge farm products downriver.
Then-Sen. Slade Gorton, a top Bush supporter, publicly lambasted McCain for failing to condemn the proposal. Bush made a campaign stop in Pasco, where he said taking down the dams would damage the economy. And the Bush campaign immediately aired radio ads, four days before the primary, saying he was the only candidate who opposed removing the dams.
One reason McCain won't fall into the same trap this year is that two of Bush's top local strategists in 2000, Gorton and Mike McKay, a Seattle lawyer and presidential campaign veteran, are on the candidate's team this time. Gorton is McCain's honorary state chairman and McKay is co-chairman of his state campaign steering committee.
Now, McCain "recognizes the critical importance of the dams to Eastern Washington," said Fidler, one of his top campaign operatives here in 2000 and again this year.
If McCain emerges from Tuesday's contests with the GOP nomination all but locked up, as polls suggest, a favorable showing in Washington's caucuses Saturday and in its presidential primary Feb. 19 could do to his chief rival, Mitt Romney, what it did to McCain in 2000: administer a campaign coup de grace.
McCain has an opportunity to secure the nomination because Republican primaries in most Super Tuesday states, including California and New York, where he leads in the polls, are winner-take-all. The Democrats allocate nominating-convention delegates proportionally.
The GOP's two dark-horse hopefuls, Mike Huckabee and Rep. Ron Paul, have vowed to plod on even as they dwell in the cellar of nearly every poll.
On the Democratic side, if Tuesday's results leave the race between Clinton and Obama with no solid front-runner as polls indicate is likely, then this state's caucuses could give one or the other a leg up.
"I think you could argue that states after (Feb.) 5th could get more attention, at least on the Democratic side, than states on the 5th," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "My suggestion is that whichever candidate or candidates have a good chance to win Washington, they're going to be there to take credit."
"Somebody (in the Democratic race) could be touting a victory here," agreed University of Washington political scientist Bryan Jones. With the second-highest number of Democratic convention delegates in the West, a win here "could be more than bragging rights; it could be some serious delegates."
Unlike Washington Republicans, who choose about half their convention delegates in precinct caucuses and half in the Feb. 19 primary, Democrats pick most of their delegates in the caucuses and none in the primary. For that reason, the Democratic contenders aren't likely to waste time stopping here once the caucuses are over.
What it means is that unlike Saturday's caucuses, Washington's primary two weeks after Super Tuesday could become a mere academic exercise if McCain has the Republican nomination sewn up by then.
"Most of the campaign people tell me that if (McCain and Romney) are still viable after Super Tuesday, we should expect to see them, but we haven't seen anything concrete yet," said state GOP Chairman Luke Esser.
He thinks Republican candidates might show up here after Washington's caucuses but before its primary. Wisconsin is the only other state holding a Republican primary on Feb. 19.
Louisiana and Kansas have nominating contests the same day as Washington's caucuses. With the Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., primaries three days later, "the candidates are more distracted and have more places to think about going on the week of our caucuses than the week of our primary," Esser said.
Clinton, Obama and McCain appear to have the biggest, most visible organizations in this state, and the greatest number of prominent local endorsers. But so far, Washington voters have seen more of the candidates' surrogates than of the contenders themselves.
Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry campaigned here for Obama last week. Sen. Maria Cantwell, Rep. Jay Inslee and other locally big-name Clinton supporters toured the Puget Sound area over the weekend to tout their candidate's clean energy plan.
The only actual candidate to visit the state recently has been Paul, who brought his libertarian, antiwar campaign to Seattle Thursday.
Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama received a flurry of Democratic endorsements in Washington on Monday, just before the state's Saturday caucuses. Lt. Gov. Brad Owen endorsed Clinton, while Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown endorsed Obama.
The Clinton campaign announced Owen's support along with endorsements from 37 other state officials, including 18 members of the Legislature. In addition to Brown, among those backing Obama are a number of Seattle-area legislators, including Rep. Dave Upthegrove, Sen. Ken Jacobsen, Sen. Ed Murray and Rep. Jamie Pedersen.
Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire has not yet endorsed a candidate, but has indicated she will do so before Saturday's caucuses.
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