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Rossi counting on anger with status quo, Murray

With all the shrill attack ads savaging Democrat Patty Murray as an incompetent spendthrift or Republican Dino Rossi as a slippery bagman, it’s pretty easy to forget the two candidates for Senate have some common traits.

Both had hardscrabble beginnings, growing up in large Catholic families without much money. Murray’s father was a World War II vet left jobless by multiple sclerosis; she volunteered at a Veterans Administration hospital. Rossi’s parents were teachers; he waxed floors to work his way through college.

Both did stints in the state Senate and used that as a springboard for statewide races, which they started as relative unknowns. When Murray entered the 1992 U.S. Senate race, few thought she could win; when Rossi exited the 2004 governor’s race, many thought he’d actually won.

Both are in the campaign of their lives in a year of voter anger and angst.

For Rossi, winning the Senate seat could offer redemption for that first governor’s race he lost by 133 votes after two recounts and a court case, as well as the 2008 rematch he lost by nearly 200,000 votes. For Murray, a win could keep congressional Democrats from falling into the minority and validate the initiatives she’s championed for the administration. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden already campaigned for her, and Obama is returning to Seattle next week, followed by first lady Michelle Obama later in the month.

This is the first time Rossi has run without what he calls the “headwind” of a presidential race in a state that has backed the Democratic pick in the last six presidential elections. When Republican fortunes waned in those years, national GOP money dried up. That’s not the case this year, as both parties and their allies are spending as freely in the race.

He’s trying to capitalize on something that transcends partisan leanings – voter discontent with the status quo, which sometimes prompts Washington voters to oust familiar and powerful incumbents.

“What’s happening clearly isn’t working,” said Rossi, 50, calling for a smaller federal budget, an end to government bailouts and further tax cuts.

Murray won in 1992 and 2004 with more votes than either Democratic presidential nominee, as well as in 1998 when the economy was strong and no congressional incumbent of either party lost in Washington. This is her first election as an incumbent in an anti-incumbent year.

“I think as (voters) begin to see the reality of who’s really fighting for them, we will prevail,” said Murray, 59. Congress cut spending to pay for some programs, like extra payments for Medicare and teacher salaries, and Republicans wouldn’t go along, she added.

Voters may be trying to figure out who’s fighting for them and who’s just fighting. For weeks the Rossi and Murray campaigns have traded daily salvos over legislation that passed the Senate or was consigned to a lame-duck session by threat of Republican filibuster.

They disagree strenuously over earmarks. Rossi opposes them, contending anything worth the money should go through the budget process. Murray supports them, saying they allow Congress to direct money to worthy local programs rather than leaving decisions to “Washington, D.C., bureaucrats.”

They differ on extending the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts to individuals making more than $200,000.

Rossi would make all tax cuts permanent to stimulate businesses now afraid to invest and expand because they can’t figure out what new federal regulation or tax rate they’ll face in a few months.

Rossi, a commercial real estate developer, replied he “most likely” would pay higher taxes if the top-tier tax breaks go away. But he called for general tax relief on income and estate taxes, opposition to which is “all part of the class warfare that Sen. Murray wants to play.”

Murray, when talking to veterans, seniors and college students at her campaign stops, refers to that top-tier break as “a tax cut for millionaires and billionaires” and offers a fiscal-conservative argument against it – that it would balloon the deficit. Murray says extending the tax breaks to the middle class and the poor is stymied by the threat of Republican filibuster. Rossi points out, however, that some Democrats also want to keep all the tax cuts and argues the Senate shouldn’t have recessed without passing tax cuts so voters and businesses know what next year’s tax rates will be.

“It’s going to be done by the end of the year,” Murray said. “We’ll see how (Republicans) feel after the election.”

The two candidates engaged in another skirmish at the beginning of the month over a more localized tax issue, the deduction Washington residents can take on their federal income taxes for the state’s high sales tax. The sales tax deduction is renewed year to year, usually with a package of other tax rules, but in early October the most recent package fell victim to the threat of a GOP filibuster. Republicans suggested a bill just to continue the sales tax deduction; Democrats hoping to save the full package balked.

Murray criticized Rossi for not getting Republican leaders who are campaigning for him to drop their objections to the package. Rossi criticized Murray for not getting her party on board for a chance to make the deduction permanent.

Fights over health care reform, new regulations for the financial system and federal support for the banking system generate similar wars of words.

To provide a firebreak to a possible anti-incumbent wildfire, Murray is trying to rally two key constituencies, veterans and the state’s aerospace industry.

Murray pushed to expand programs and clinics for veterans and keep the VA from closing hospitals.

“When I came into the Senate, Congress wasn’t thinking about veterans,” she said in a recent interview.

Rossi has tried to steer the issue into a question about profligate spending. “The main threat to our veterans programs right now is the enormous amount of spending and debt that Patty Murray has voted for: the massive bailouts, the failed stimulus bill, the earmarks and other wasteful spending which is jeopardizing Congress’ ability to provide our veterans the benefits they’ve earned.”

Murray is also reminding the aerospace industry that she’s been at the forefront of trying to get the Air Force to buy the next generation of aerial tankers from Boeing rather than from a consortium that includes the European maker of Airbus.

Her campaign was slapped down by the state’s media, however, for unfairly exploiting a comment by Rossi on whether the Pentagon should consider unfair trade subsidies in awarding the contract. Asked about it by the editorial board of the Tacoma News Tribune, Rossi said no. Murray quickly said yes, that Airbus subsidies should disqualify that plane.

Rossi’s campaign later said he thought the question – which was arguably vague – was about disqualifying Boeing for any unfair subsidies. When Murray used a clip of his original answer in an ad that suggested he didn’t care about Boeing jobs, newspaper ad critiques called that a false characterization. The Rossi campaign pounced with a commercial that contends Murray has morphed into a typical politician from the other Washington.

Murray’s campaign replied the question was clear as far as she was concerned and that Rossi has been criticized for inaccurate ads about her record on spending bills.

But Rossi’s commercial may have struck a chord. In mid-September, most polls showed Murray ahead, with half or more of those surveyed ready to vote for her; more recent polls show Rossi slightly ahead, with the two separated by an amount within the margin of error.

The outcome could depend on mobilizing voters in areas where the candidates are strongest. For Murray, that’s the urban areas of Puget Sound; for Rossi, it’s the suburbs and rural areas east of the Cascades.