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CAMPAIGN 2000

Northwest Tactics Are a Balancing Act for Bush, Gore

September 17, 2000|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

MONROE, Wash. — A silky curtain of fog covered the Skykomish River as Willy O'Neil waited for George W. Bush to arrive at a rally here one brisk morning last week. Crystal clear, however, was O'Neil's reasoning for backing Bush.

"We've just had too much top-down, ivory-tower environmental regulation," complained O'Neil, an executive at an association of construction firms. "Until you get the local community to support you, top-down regulation just doesn't work."

O'Neil typifies the voters that Bush is targeting in an unconventional strategy to challenge Al Gore for Washington and Oregon--two states Democrats consider part of their electoral base. Far more aggressively than 1996 Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole, Bush is championing the cause of Northwest logging, farming, fishing and mining industries. These are businesses that maintain they are being strangled by overzealous environmental regulations--and they fear that Gore would tighten the noose even further.

Bush's promise of a lighter regulatory touch and greater local control in environmental decisions is helping him generate enthusiastic support in the rural parts of both states, particularly in the resource-dependent expanses east of the Cascade Range. But many analysts say his approach risks alienating environmentally conscious moderate voters in the Seattle and Portland, Ore., suburbs who might otherwise be receptive to his "compassionate conservatism."

Bush's strategy helps him "in stimulating turnout in the areas that are favorable to him," said Bill Lunch, a political scientist at Oregon State University. "The difficulty is it hurts him in the areas that usually constitute the swing areas."

Gore, meanwhile, faces his own balancing act on the region's lengthy menu of environmental disputes.

On issues such as protecting the endangered salmon, Gore has tried to craft positions that won't alienate mainstream voters, while minimizing defection to Green Party nominee Ralph Nader--whose embrace of the most purist environmental positions has won him a following in the Northwest probably greater than anywhere else.

Mainstream environmentalists line up behind Gore. But when he arrived for a late-night rally in Portland recently, the throng of Nader supporters heckling him was half as large as the crowd of Democrats who came to cheer.

These complex political dynamics have made Oregon and Washington two of the most unexpected and intriguing battlefields in campaign 2000. Both states, which have a combined 18 electoral votes, supported the Democratic presidential nominee in the last three elections. Yet the states remain somewhat unpredictable. President Clinton's popularity with voters in Oregon dropped in 1996 while it increased nationally. And both states have displayed split personalities--each is represented in the Senate by a liberal Democrat and a conservative Republican.

Bush's campaign and the Republican National Committee already have blanketed Washington with more than $2.5 million in television ads and Oregon with nearly $850,000, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks campaign advertising.

Gore and the Democratic National Committee have exceeded the GOP buy in Oregon and nearly matched it in Washington.

As the buys suggest, Bush strategists are more optimistic about their prospects in Washington, hence the large investment there, than in Oregon. But new polls cast doubt on that assessment. Surveys showed Gore with a 7-percentage-point lead in Washington and just a 1-point advantage in Oregon, where Nader still is attracting 8% of the vote.

Local issues may influence the presidential race in the two states more than any other place in the country. When Bush and Gore come to the Northwest, they talk about salmon as much as they do about schools, timber as much as taxes. Both have been drawn into long-running environmental controversies that pit cities against the country, the east against the west and generate such strong emotion that one local observer calls them "our version of class warfare."

The result has been a series of sharp distinctions concerning environmental topics that offer clear choices for voters. Here is a look at those issues.

* Dams: The region's predominant environmental controversy centers on how to revive endangered salmon species. Environmentalists want to ease the salmon's path upstream to spawn by breaching four federal dams on the Snake River; the idea is fiercely opposed by business and union interests, who say it will hurt shipping and irrigation and remove a source of cheap hydroelectric power.

The issue has taken on an emotional symbolism that extends beyond its considerable practical impact. "The dams may not be the only issue in eastern Washington, but they are an overwhelming issue there," said Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.).

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