The Washington State economy is in the toilet. The incumbent Democratic governor isn't running for reelection, and the gaggle of circling Democratic wannabes appear to be headed into a brutal primary battle. Polling shows that the state's senior Democratic senator, Patty Murray, may be vulnerable in 2004. The current Republican president is broadly popular. For these reasons, the Mayberry Machiavellis in the vaunted White House political operation smell blood and are targeting Washington State for big Republican electoral gains.

And that's not the good news, crows Republican Party state chair Chris Vance. The good news, he says during an interview in the party's suburban Southcenter offices, is that the Washington Republicans, after a long string of statewide campaigns in which they got their asses handed to them on a plate, finally have their act together.

The 41-year-old Vance is a paid partisan and a master of political spin. He may well be the most quotable guy in Washington State politics. After a recent area appearance by Democratic presiden- tial candidate John Edwards, Vance dissed the North Carolina senator as "a phony, a hypocrite, and a political flash in the pan." Still, Vance's vision of a kinder, gentler Washington Republican Party--one that is disciplined, organized, and unified behind candidates with potential salability to centrist suburban voters, particularly women--may finally be coming to fruition.

Washington Republicans have an execrable track record in recent statewide elections, Vance freely admits. He attributes that to putting forward candidates whose divisive right-wing views alienated suburban voters. Most notably, Vance points to a destructive six-way primary in 1996 that Bible-thumper Ellen Craswell won with 15 percent of the vote, only to be crushed by Locke in the general election. Craswell seriously damaged the party's image, and would never have been nominated if the party had been more active in narrowing the field, Vance says: "The reason we haven't been competitive is mostly because of incompetence."

The time when Democrats could count on Republicans to nominate "a kook" is over, Vance says. "The Democrats are counting on us to mess up.... Try and tell me Bob Herbold is a kook. He's the guy who ran Microsoft." Herbold is the likely Republican candidate for governor, though he has not yet officially decided to enter the race.

While Republicans appear to be getting more disciplined--the White House has taken an active role in recruiting candidates and enforcing party electoral unity--the Dems are headed into a wide-open primary battle for the gubernatorial nomination. Three candidates have declared so far: Attorney General Christine Gregoire, former state supreme court justice Phil Talmadge, and King County Executive Ron Sims (suburban representative Jay Inslee also appears to be leaning toward running).

Of course, there could be other reasons Republicans have not fared well statewide. Washington may just be too liberal for Republicans to have much of a chance. Randy Pepple, Republican public affairs consultant and former chief of staff to Rick White, concedes that Washington "still leans Democratic, but is not a safe Democratic state." He sees Democrats in recent years enjoying an inherent 3 to 5 percent electoral advantage, as suburban voters have increasingly voted Democratic.

President Bush's popularity, and the post-9/11 emphasis on national security (which heavily favors Republicans), could change that. "2004 could be a very good year for Republicans, but it's no slam dunk," Pepple contends.

Then there's the Eyman problem. Vance says the controversial anti-tax crusader has garnered so much media attention because of the leadership vacuum in the Republican Party, but that era is now over. Eyman himself is keenly aware that his image could damage Republican electoral fortunes. He jokingly describes himself as the Republicans' "drunk uncle," and says he will monkey with the Dems by publicly praising each of the Democratic candidates for aiding his initiative campaigns.

Vance believes any pro-Democrat bias in Washington State can be overcome. He points out that except for the West Coast, the Republicans have made substantial gains in traditionally Democratic regions in 2002. In staunchly liberal Massachusetts, the Republicans nominated a Mormon for governor--and won. In staunchly liberal Maryland, they put up a conservative congressman against a member of the Kennedy clan--and won.

There is no reason the Republicans can't do the same in Washington. It all boils down to Vance's mantra: getting the right candidates with the right message in the running.

That's not a sure thing. Several heavily touted potential Republican candidates have already passed on the governor's race: popular Eastside representative Jennifer Dunn, and gazillionaire telecom exec John Stanton. Now the party is focusing on the wealthy, pro-business Herbold for governor, with state senator Dino Rossi--who bested the legislative Dems in recent budget negotiations--waiting in the wings if Herbold takes a pass.

Vance is clearly on a crusade--not so much to moderate the Republican Party in any substantive way, but to soften its hard-edged culture-war image. Asked about Herbold's stand on abortion rights, Vance claims not to know. "I haven't asked him. No one on our side talks about abortion. We are not obsessed with abortion--they are." He says Republican candidates intend to focus on bread-and-butter issues: jobs, improving the business climate, healthcare in the suburbs, and the rural economy's sorry state--which he blames on excessive environmental regulation imposed by Seattle Democrats--in the hinterlands.

But while Vance may have a silver tongue, it is also forked, Democratic political consultant Blair Butterworth counters, stating that Democrats have no intention of giving Republicans a pass on the more controversial elements of their platform.

Butterworth is admirably succinct when asked what he thinks of Vance's contention that the Republicans have a new message and less abrasive tone that will put them back in the game. "It's bullshit. Vance is in denial," he says. Butterworth contends that since 1988, when Pat Robertson's Christian soldiers hijacked the Republican Party caucuses, the state's Republican base has been dominated by anti-government wackos: "It's awfully hard to recruit a great athlete to play on your team if you hate the game." No matter who the Republicans put up for governor, "they don't have a chance," Butterworth believes, given the strength of the Democratic bench, with its slew of seasoned politicians.

Only time will tell which side is right. Meanwhile, Vance leans back in his chair. He admits he can't promise a win, but promises this time around his party will be competitive. "I guarantee it," he says.