by George Howland, Jr.
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray unwittingly kicked the Republican effort to unseat her into high gear in December. In a high-school honors class in Vancouver, she posed a legitimate question: Why is Osama bin Laden so popular around the world? Her bumbling answer set off a firestorm of coast-to-coast, right-wing outrage. While talk radio and Internet bloggers do their best to keep the embers of that inferno burning, Republican operatives from the White House's senior political advisor, Karl Rove, to the Washington State Republican Party's chair, Chris Vance, are trying to take advantage of the opportunity Democrat Murray gave them to recruit a strong candidate to run against her in 2004. At the top of their wish list is Rep. Jennifer Dunn, R-Bellevue, a 12-year member of the U.S. House of Representatives from the suburbs outside Seattle. Dunn, however, is dithering, and local Republicans are evenly divided on whether she will actually take the plunge.

Next in line is Spokane's own Rep. George Nethercutt, who seems much more enthusiastic about the prospect of taking on Murray. Nethercutt served as chief of staff for Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and reportedly has a fondness for the institution. In addition, by defeating then-Speaker of the House Tom Foley in 1994, Nethercutt pulled off one of the biggest upsets in recent Washington political history. That should give him the confidence to take on the arduous task of defeating a popular incumbent senator. Political observers agree either Dunn or Nethercutt needs to decide before too long because unseating Murray will be so difficult.

On Dec. 18, Murray visited Columbia River High School for a "45-minute, broad-ranging discussion with 40 honors students," according to her office. Near the end of the session, Murray, who two months earlier voted against the resolution to give President Bush authorization to use military force against Iraq, asked the students to consider "alternatives to war," according to the Vancouver Columbian. She answered her own question about bin Laden's popularity: "He's been out in these countries for decades building roads, building schools, building day-care facilities, building health-care facilities, and the people are extremely grateful... We have not done that. We haven't been out in many of these countries helping them build infrastructure."

The next day, the Columbian printed a story about Murray's remarks; right-wing talk radio and wire services picked up on it immediately; the next day, Matt Drudge, conservative collector of Web news links, linked to the Columbian.

Suddenly Murray was the subject of a national controversy that continues. The story received an incredible 267,000 page views in its first 10 days on the Columbian's Web site, where the previous record was a mere 18,000, according to the paper. Newspapers across the country carried wire-service accounts; letters to the editor poured in to papers in at least 13 states; editorials appeared in papers including The Washington Post; conservative media outlets, in particular, had a field day.

While Murray drew some defenders -- a syndicated columnist or two, the editorial pages of The Seattle Times, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Bellingham Herald-- and some thoughtful criticism in the Post, the Columbian, and Tacoma's News Tribune, most of the editorial response was a revolting combination of factual distortion and viciousness, epitomized by a quip by The Spokesman-Review's columnist D.F. Oliveria, Murray said we "should follow Osama bin Laden's example to win friends and influence Arab despots. You know, build road, murder infidels -- and back regimes that treat women like trash."

Murray was denounced on radio and TV by Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly and Fox News' Brit Hume, among others. In print and online, she was ravaged by national outlets like the Journal, the Washington Times, National Review and The Weekly Standard, as well as syndicated columnists for major newspaper chains including Gannett and Knight Ridder.

None of which excuses the fact our state's senior senator did a remarkably poor job of articulating the shortcomings of American foreign policy and the reasons for popular support in many countries of bin Laden's terrorist war on the West. A closer examination of Murray's remarks reveals some complete nonsense (bin Laden hasn't been building any day-care centers) some surprising truths (he did, according to several respected sources, help build roads, tunnels, schools and hospitals for decades in Afghanistan) and much ambiguity (American's foreign-aid budget has shrunk in recent years and remains huge in gross terms, though not as impressive as a proportion of our overall budget). Murray captured very little of this complexity in her remarks.

That's the point, says Washington GOP chair Vance. "The most powerful thing in politics is when you say what everybody is already thinking," he asserts. "Is [Murray] ready for prime time? Her comments were stupid."

Vance points out that Washingtonian magazine, in its Sept. 2002 survey of anonymous Capitol Hill staffers, named Murray No. 1 in the "Not A Rocket Scientist" category. (The magazine notes that most of her votes came from GOP staffers.)

Vance says Murray's remarks reveal that she is out of her league in the Senate.

Murray responds: "If I could count the number of times in my life that people put me down..." She points out that the famous dismissal that launched her career, "You're just a mom in tennis shoes," was exactly this type of insult. "How many times have people said to me it should be lobbyists and millionaires" who serve in the Senate? She defends her record of delivering much-needed projects in environmental protection, transportation and water infrastructure for the state. "I am the state's biggest champion," she declares.

In this exchange, we have the broad outlines for the campaign that will emerge in 2004.

Republicans say Washington's Senate campaign will first of all be a referendum on President Bush's national-security measures, foreign policy and economic program. Their preferred candidates, either Dunn or Nethercutt, are firmly behind the president on all three issues. Murray not only opposes his foreign policy in Iraq, but she also is sharply critical of his domestic program of tax cuts for the rich to improve the economy. Secondly, the GOP campaign will be about Murray's level of competence. Many Republicans believe there will be more gaffes to come that will reveal Murray as a lightweight.

Democrats believe that the race will primarily be about class. Murray's ability, they say, to connect to ordinary Washingtonians, particularly suburban women like herself, is an incredible political asset. State Democratic Party Chair Paul Berendt argues: "Every time the Republicans try to put [Murray] down, they essentially are putting down every soccer mom."

Murray's populist profile is reinforced by her dogged devotion to delivering for the state, Democrats believe. "She's kept a lot of jobs here in the state," says Christian Sinderman, a Democratic consultant. "Her achievements are things you can see. It's hard to run against an incumbent who has tangible achievements.

Republicans believe Dunn can counter many of Murray's strengths. Dunn "is a woman. It blunts the gender issue," claims GOP consultant Bret Bader, who worked for Dunn while she was state Republican chair. He enumerates her other strengths: her incumbency in a suburban district; her statewide organization of supporters, both among the grassroots and elected officials, that goes back to her days as party chair; "unparalled fundraising prowess"; strong name ID in a key part of the state; the support of President Bush and his political organization; and the ability to connect with a broad spectrum of Washingtonians, from CEOs to ordinary people in rural communities.

Nethercutt has more challenges, but many Republicans feel he can overcome them. Republican consultant Randy Pepple says, "Nethercutt would be a fine candidate, but it's difficult to run statewide from Eastern Washington." Political observers agree that Nethercutt has poor name recognition in the populous Puget Sound area.

GOP party chair Vance dismisses the concern. "A few million dollars can solve all that," he says.

Vance acknowledges that Nethercutt would face some "grumbling about term limits" from the Republican Party's grassroots, since the Congressman broke his promise not to serve more than six years. Vance claims, however, that Murray's views on foreign policy would "quiet that."

Vance believes the key to victory is for George W. Bush's political operation and the entire state party to unite behind one candidate. Either Dunn or Nethercutt could be that person, Vance says.

Bring them on, say the Democrats with delight. Democratic Party chair Paul Berendt Berendt believes that support from Bush may be more of a liability than an asset in Washington. "We've beaten the Bush family three times in this state." The state Democratic Party fared much better in the 2002 midterm elections than other Democrats around the country. Not only did Democrats retain six of the state's nine congressional seats, they also gained seats in the state House of Representatives, although they did lose their narrow majority in the state Senate. Berendt believes the local Democrats' success is directly attributable to being "more aggressive in taking [Bush] on over the war and the economy."

Republicans say the tide will turn their way, if, as they expect, the war against Iraq is as successful as the previous Gulf War and Bush's policies turn the economy around. In addition, Vance claims, in past elections Murray had the advantage of taking on Republican candidates who were weakened by tough primaries with the moderate and conservative wings of the GOP tearing into one another with abandon. "Not on my watch!" declares Vance.

He says Dunn "is everybody's first choice" and that she will make her decision soon. Since Nethercutt has told the Associated Press that he will not oppose Dunn, he will await her decision before making his own.

Even if the GOP has not yet chosen its standard bearer, however, the terms of the battle against Murray have already been set.

A version of this story first appeared in Seattle Weekly.

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Publication date: 02/20/03

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