"There's an old saying," Gregoire says as part of her opening remarks. "If you want to know where you're headed, well then, just look where you've been."
Great idea. The debates I'm watching are four years old, before 129 votes made a difference, before recount after recount, before Seattle stole the election and before Rossi wouldn't let a grudge die. The first debate between Gregoire and Rossi in this election cycle is on Saturday. You see, I want to know where we're headed this time around, so, in a fit of masochistic reportage, I decide to take a look at what happened way back when.
As the afternoon unrolls, my eyes fixed on the two-inch image before me, I realize many things. The candidates tend to repeat themselves. They appear to live in separate realities. And, most obviously, these two seem to hate each other.
Each 2004 debate, to my chagrin, takes the same path. "Gregossi," as I will call the two-headed beast, are introduced, they smile placidly and civil discussion ensues. Twenty minutes in, after many tired campaign slogans are evoked as spontaneous answers, venom begins to slip through their ice-cold smiles. Rossi, clearly unimpressed with his rival, never once uses her name.
But Gregoire, apparently fed up with Rossi's rhetoric after just a few questions in each debate, easily tosses Rossi's first name around.
"Dino, I have listened to you exaggerate on how many fronts, it's amazing," she says at a forum hosted by the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce, before quoting Ronald Reagan, probably not her political idol. "There you go again."
Ouch. Dino Rossi as Jimmy Carter. He sputters his answer.
"Let's first start off with the exaggerations. She just did it when she said the exaggerations," he says, responding to Gregoire's claim that he was in the state legislature for "almost a decade." "I was in the Senate seven years. I guess about 30 percent off. I guess you would call that exaggerations."
Sensing a sore spot, Gregoire feigns incredulity.
"Almost a decade, sorry Dino, in the legislature complaining now profusely about how everything has been and I just can't fathom why it didn't change when you served a decade in the Legislature, chair of the most powerful tax committee."
These two are sniping like they're in a grade school crush, or perhaps a sibling rivalry. It's fun to watch and I'm thinking my task will be no sweat. The afternoon should fly by. Considering the animosity generated by the bitter ending in 2004, this small talk can only get better.
Eternal Talking Points
One thing was for sure: In '04, there was no Barack Obama talk. But, oddly, they occasionally got close.
"Washington state can really do better. We can head in the right direction with bold new visionary leadership," Gregoire says at the first TV debate in 2004. "I want to change the culture in Olympia. ... I see a bright future for Washington state."
(Four years later, as Obama stood before a throng of 80,000 people in Denver, he echoed a similar sentiment. "These challenges [we face] are not all of government's making. But the failure to respond is a direct result of broken politics in Washington and the failed policies of George W. Bush. America, we are better than these last eight years. We are a better country than this.")
Rossi one-upped Gregoire. Not only did he presage Obama, but he also channeled a little bit of John McCain.
"We have so many people that want change. It's not just Republicans. It's independents and Democrats," Rossi said at the same debate. Two debates later in Everett, answering a question on abortion rights, he morphed into Rossi-McCain. "If I had to change my position on an issue of conscience just to become governor, I'd rather not become governor."
("I'd rather lose an election than lose a war," McCain has said repeatedly, like a Buddhist monk, during his run for the presidency.)
The second '04 debate took place on the slickest of sound stages. The candidates stand behind angular, slate gray podiums, nothing behind them but a deep black background. Except for an instant at the beginning, the candidates' relative positions are never shown. Their torsos float apart from one other -- occasionally in split screen -- and I'm reminded of the bad guys in Superman II. There's Gregossi, much like General Zod and his cronies, trapped in a two-dimensional screen, spinning through a black wasteland.
With the first question, I realize this debate might be the most fun. The candidates are shown commercials produced by their rival and asked to respond. I wonder how they might respond to the current campaigns' new ads.
Like this Rossi one: "Do we have problems that are too big, too hard to solve? Or is Olympia stuck in the same old way of doing things?" Rossi asks. Or in another, he excoriates Gregoire for not taking responsibility with "her Olympia Blame Game" and cites the budget deficit as one of the governor's weaknesses.
For her part, Gregoire's commercials aren't really a symbol of elevated politics. In an ad titled "Check the Record," a man's voice can be heard, displeased and striking the tone of a disappointed parent.
"Dino, Dino, Dino, Dino," he says, the displeasure dripping from every repeated Dino. "The last thing we need is a George Bush Republican like Dino Rossi."
The Times They Are A-Changin'
Will all the Bush-bashing work? Seeing as how both gubernatorial candidates are doing their best to align with Obama -- including Rossi, who says in an ad, "I agree with him on this: Change is needed" -- it's clear that Bush is poison this election year.
Hour Five, and I've seen Rossi deliver the same closing argument three times. I'm betting on a fourth. Gregoire keeps attacking Rossi for his bed tax and for kicking poor kids off insurance rolls. They both keep those smiles on their faces.
At this point, I have no idea how long my task will take. It could be another two hours, for all I know. Confusion swirls behind my blurry eyes. Is there another debate after this, I wonder. How many debates took place in 2004? I can't remember. My notes become incomprehensible. Doodles take the place of quotes, thoughts and observances on the legal pad in front of me. Inexplicably, I draw a football and some sort of abstract symbol surrounding a question mark.
Then, mercifully, "Gregossi" delivers the closing remarks.
"Canada to the north, gateway to Asia," says Rossi, for the fourth time. "We have everything we need except the political will, courage and leadership in Olympia."
It's too much. My head is spinning with the debates' mantras -- 20,000 jobs, $200 bed tax, $4 billion tobacco settlement, Dino-crats -- and I realize, my God, it's going to start all over again on Saturday.
Catch the first Gregoire-Rossi debate this Saturday, Sept. 20, at 9 pm on KXLY-4.