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In 5th, challenger faces an uphill battle

Under the best of circumstances, Mark Mays would face Cathy McMorris Rodgers with two strikes against him.

Strike one: He’s a Democrat, and voting patterns in Eastern Washington’s 5th Congressional District have been decidedly Republican for 14 years.

Strike two: She’s the incumbent, who has spent four years in Congress and 10 before that as a state representative for a legislative district that makes up the largest geographic chunk of the congressional district; he admits his name recognition is low.

That’s been the count since the Spokane psychologist and lawyer entered the race, relatively late, in February. The fact that she’s been able to raise at least 10 times more money and collect about 56 percent of the primary vote despite the presence of three conservative candidates on the ballot, might have some thinking he’s already struck out.

But Mays fights to remain in the game, with three debates over the next five days, and said he hopes to substitute volunteer enthusiasm for his smaller campaign balance.

In their first debate Friday morning at the Spokane Club, Mays and McMorris Rodgers agreed the Medicare system needs reform, but disagreed how to do it.

McMorris Rodgers said one of the biggest problems is the federal government, which doesn’t pay its fair share.

“We have to get honest about the cost of Medicare,” she said.

For Mays, the solution would be a bigger overhaul. Seniors beyond a certain income level should pay more or buy health insurance that isn’t subsidized by taxpayers.

“We have to change the overall system,” he said. “We have to look at a ‘needs test’ for Medicare.”

With an international banking and credit crisis threatening the economy, Mays is attacking McMorris Rodgers on her votes against providing as much as $700 billion to shore up bad loans.

Despite the urging of President Bush and congressional leaders of both parties, McMorris Rodgers voted against the bailout plan that failed Sept. 29 and the one that passed Oct. 3. It was, she said, a decision being made with too little information on a plan that had too many risks.

“It was not a long-term solution,” she said. “This legislation didn’t address the situations that brought us to where we are today.”

McMorris Rodgers said she listened to Bush, her caucus leaders, both presidential candidates and financial experts. Several issues she’d supported, including the state sales tax deduction and payments to rural schools and counties to make up for declining timber revenues, were added to the final version. But the bill was still the financial rescue package at its core, she said, and she couldn’t support it.

Mays, who described the bailout as a choice between “something horrible and something catastrophic,” acknowledged that McMorris Rodgers’ decision might play well with voters outraged at Wall Street excess. But he noted that along with political leaders, financial experts such as Warren Buffett said it was necessary.

“It’s not a solution, but it allows time for a solution,” Mays said. “If a patient comes into the emergency room, you’ve got to stop the bleeding before you can do an MRI.”

Both say the nation needs to become less dependent on foreign oil by developing domestic sources and encouraging alternatives such as wind and solar power. McMorris Rodgers favors drilling offshore and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and building nuclear power plants. Mays argues that the risks outweigh the benefits of drilling and it won’t produce new oil for a decade; if the nation builds nuclear plants, it has to avoid giant projects like the ones that led to the Washington Public Power Supply System debacle, and focus on small ones like the Canadians operate, he adds.

Neither wants an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, although Mays believes in getting combat troops out in about 18 months and leaving a “minimal peacekeeping force” behind. The United States is building roads and bridges in Iraq that it should be building here, he said.

McMorris Rodgers has opposed timetables for a withdrawal and supported President Bush on the surge. The war is expensive, but it’s better to fight terrorists in Iraq than in the United States, she said.

Earlier this year, McMorris Rodgers swore off “earmarks,” saying she wouldn’t try to slip any requests for extra money for specific local projects the federal spending bills. The earmark process is out of control, she said, adding she hoped other members of Congress would follow suit and generate reforms.

Mays compared that to unilateral disarmament. The system needs reform, but the true impact of earmarks on the federal budget is overstated, he said.

“What you’re basically doing is having our taxpayers fund projects elsewhere. I don’t want to be the only one out there playing without a helmet,” he said.

McMorris Rodgers said she hasn’t decided whether she would go back to seeking some earmarks next year. The race is more congenial than the two preceding congressional elections; 2004 was essentially a free-for-all for an open seat and 2006 a tough re-election fight against Democrat Peter Goldmark, who surprised McMorris Rodgers by attacking her support for veterans.

“I thought that was a strength of mine,” she said recently. “I’ve learned to do a better job of tracking every vote I take” because an opponent will be tracking it also.

At a gathering of Spokane business executives, Mays used a line most often heard from Republicans – including Rossi against Gregoire – that he’s the candidate in the congressional race that better understands business concerns because he’s the one who runs a business and “has signed the front of a paycheck as well as the back.”

While he collected about 20 percent of the vote in the August primary – perennial candidate Barbara Lampert, who spent almost no money, got 11 percent – Mays said he’s not giving up.

“October is filled with surprises,” he said. The economy will be the main thing on most voters’ minds for the rest of the month. If the Dow drops lower, the demand for change will hurt incumbents, he said.

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