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For Voters in Washington State, It's the Year of the Women

Politics: Incumbent Democratic Sen. Patty Murray faces a tough challenge from Rep. Linda Smith, her polar opposite on most issues.


MOUNTLAKE TERRACE, Wash. — Six years ago, Patty Murray wore a pair of scruffy sneakers all the way to the U.S. Senate. Her image as a "mom in tennis shoes" and her plain talk about neighbors and schools carried the day in what turned out to be the "year of the woman," with nearly two dozen sweeping into Congress.

This time around, with Murray facing a tough reelection fight, the political landscape is more complex. Female voters again will play a key role in determining the makeup of the next Congress, but Murray is no longer the only game in town. Her opponent, tough-talking Republican Rep. Linda Smith, wears high heels, not tennis shoes, and isn't prepared to cede an inch of feminine turf.

At a recent campaign forum for hundreds of Blue Cross workers (80% of them women), Smith laid out the alternatives. "Patty is not a bad person," she allowed. "I believe she loves her kids just like I do . . . but her way of caring was to become the deciding vote in the largest tax increase in history. She believed compassion was raising taxes. I believe compassion, most of the time, is controlling them."

The nation's only Senate race with two women facing off illustrates a reality of many of this year's campaigns: The crucial female vote will be won not on gender sympathies but on mainstream issues important to women, and the prevailing party will be, in part, the one that most accurately assesses what those are.

Most Conservative Vs. Most Liberal

Murray and Smith may agree on the virtues of motherhood and quality schools, but they are worlds apart on everything else from abortion and the budget to affirmative action, gun control, natural resource protection and foreign trade. Based on their voting records, Smith was rated the most conservative member of Congress in 1995; two years later, Murray was by one count the institution's most liberal.

Republicans nationwide are counting on Democratic women's disenchantment with President Clinton over the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal to help them in next week's election. Murray--who ascended on the wave of feminist anger that followed the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court hearings in 1991--has remained low-key on Clinton beyond saying he was "wrong." Smith, however, has been vocal in calling for the president's impeachment.

"I'm really tired of those people who bring their moral values, their personal values, onto the Congress floor," one Blue Cross employee complained to Smith. "Do you truly understand the meaning of separation of church and state?"

"If you don't break the law, I don't give a rip about how you live," Smith shot back. "Don't bring it out, don't make me pay for it, I don't care. You bring it out, you break the law by perjury, yeah, I care."

Washington State GOP Chairman Dale Foreman theorized that some of those who want to make an anti-Clinton statement on election day will vote Republican, even if they're moderates or Democrats, and that others will be so turned off by the whole process that they will just stay home or not vote.

'Totally Different on Every Issue'

The voters most likely to stay home, Foreman said, are those most prized by both parties this year--the so-called "waitress moms." They are the blue-collar working mothers from suburban and rural America who are much less educated and less affluent than the suburban soccer moms who played such an important role in the 1996 campaign--and who Murray symbolized when she went to Washington in 1992.

"The good news in America is we're now beyond the year of the woman making history," Foreman said. "Now we're talking about the fact that these are two women who are totally different on every issue."

One of those is abortion: Smith is a leader of anti-abortion forces in Washington, D.C., and Murray earned a perfect 100 score from the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. The issue isn't expected to be decisive in this race, however, because a third of the voters are strongly anti-abortion, a third are strongly pro-abortion rights and the rest are in the middle.

Beyond that, the usual party lines are muddier. Smith cuts into Democratic territory on such blue-collar issues as human rights because of her opposition to most-favored-nation trade status with China, whereas Murray has backed full engagement with China in recognition of trade-dependent Washington-based firms like Boeing, Microsoft and Weyerhaeuser.

Smith also has taken a Populist stand on campaign finance reform, refusing to take money from political action committees--a decision that has hampered her election effort.

"Linda Smith was hoping, as several candidates across the country were, that her refusal to accept PAC money would make her seem to be the clean candidate," said James D. Moore, University of Portland political science professor. "But what we're finding out is that there's a fine balance there, because if you don't have the money to tell people you're clean, you're had."

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