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Coming Attractions?

Dino Rossi ran better TV commercials. It's that simple. While Rossi isn't necessarily going to be the next governor, we are likely headed for a recount in a race that shouldn't have been this close. After all, the Ds came out in full force this year, putting Washington in the blue column nationally: Kerry won here by more than 200,000 votes, or 53-46 percent. But in the crazy governor's race, we've been forced to watch the desperate Democratic Party chair scrounge (and literally cry) over 900 provisional ballots.

Christine Gregoire's campaign postmortem is sure to include brainy-sounding rationalizations from her handlers to explain her anemic showing (a Republican candidate hasn't won for governor here in 24 years). But never mind Gregoire's new line about the church-going vote (the Rs ran from their religious base this time out, by the way); it all comes down to the fact that Rossi was better on TV and scooped up swing voters.

Whether he was talking about his mom's waitressing job, criticizing the the status quo, discussing balancing the budget, or protecting the vulnerable, Rossi was endlessly wearing a soft blue shirt and a genuine smile. He spoke (almost whispered) in calming tones. It's easy to write this off as saccharine bullshit, but damn, with perfect hair and a flawles nod and croon on lines like "Come on Washington, let's get to work," Rossi was just too good on camera to deny.

Rossi's warm star power was doubly successful because it upended the Gregoire campaign's lone strategy: Cast Rossi as a harsh right-wing monster. Seeing is believing. And Rossi, throwing his kid over his shoulder or humbly talking about waxing floors at the Space Needle to pay for college, was obviously no monster (he is, however, right wing). In fact, Rossi's gentle-voiced ads--debunking Gregoire's grotesque characterization-- put the ball back in her court. And on that front, her complacent ad team, headed up by overconfident Clinton ad man Frank Greer, was slow to respond. They were too busy thinking they'd already won the race. Meanwhile, Rossi's TV-persona was catching on.

Ironically, Rossi's ad maestro, Scott Howell (infamous for sliming Max Cleland in 2002), was outed by the Dems during the race as a negative creep who shouldn't be allowed to peddle his ugly brand of campaigning in our delicate state. Dem State Party chair Paul Berendt even called on Rossi to fire Howell. (Maybe he, unlike Gregoire's paid team, sensed Rossi's ads were tracking.) But Howell hardly played dirty. Rather, he played to his client's gentle strength and ended up outclassing Gregoire's stiff, literal ads.

The Gregoire campaign seems proud of the ad they finally put up (evidently only under pressure from dissatisfied staffers) late in the campaign. However, their "to the camera ad"--where Gregoire finally realized she was in a contested race and made a direct appeal to voters--felt flat compared to Rossi's fireside chats. It seemed thrown together and panicked while Rossi's played like the expensive trailer for next season's blockbuster.

josh@thestranger.com

 

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