If Puget Sound Republicanism has a geographical heart, it is upscale Bellevue, and if it has a face, it is the smiling visage of Congresswoman Jennifer Dunn, who has represented the Eastside district for six terms. But with Dunn's surprise late-January announcement that she will not run for reelection this November, Democrats sense a golden opportunity to drive a stake through that heart.

They may have found the right man for the job: handsome, 45-year-old, retired RealNetworks vice president Alex Alben.

With a successful and lucrative business career under his belt, Alben exudes an aura of assertive self-confidence that should play well politically, provided he can leaven it with a bit of warmth. When he first announced his candidacy last fall, some Democratic Party activists privately admitted to finding him cold and arrogant, though recent reports indicate that Alben has improved as a campaigner, connecting more personably with rank-and-file party members.

He is running as a pro-business, tech-savvy centrist in a high-tech, business-friendly district. He touts himself as a pro-environment outdoorsman--he is an avid mountain climber--and says polling shows his relatively progressive stances on social issues, in tandem with an emphasis on fiscal conservatism, make him a perfect fit for the suburban district. He adds that his career outside of politics is a virtue rather than an impediment, and will give him a chance to bring fresh approaches to seemingly intractable problems: "People are really frustrated right now with the partisan infighting that leads us to paralysis" on issues like transportation.

Historically, the 8th Congressional District has voted staunchly Republican, and Dunn drew solid majorities in her races. In recent elections, however, the 8th has otherwise shown signs of trending Democratic. Senator Patty Murray won the district in 1998, and Governor Gary Locke and Al Gore both outpolled their Republican opponents there in 2000.

Given that the seat is one of only two currently Republican House seats in the country that will be open in November in districts carried by Gore, political consultant Christian Sinderman, who is working for Alben, says that the race is of tremendous national significance, and will likely be one of the most expensive in the country.

Alben announced last month that he'd raised $290,000, much of it his own money, but says fundraising has taken off since Dunn announced her retirement. The race will now cost substantially more than the $1.5 million goal he spoke of last September, but with national Democrats smelling a big win, Alben does not expect to have trouble raising the necessary cash.

Republican state party chair Chris Vance admits that the district is not a "slam dunk" for Republicans with Dunn off the ballot, but says it still "leans Republican pretty heavily." Plus, "Nobody knows Alex Alben," he says of the first-time candidate. "I wouldn't know him if he walked into my house."

Vance contrasts that with the only declared Republican candidate so far, King County Sheriff Dave Reichert, who is coming off a wave of glowing publicity for his role in bringing Green River killer Gary Ridgway to justice. "You can't find five people who don't like Dave Reichert. Voters know him and trust him," Vance says.

Reichert is almost certain to be a formidable candidate, since he's proven his mastery of the one thing that matters more than anything else in a high-profile political campaign: He's good on TV. In recent television appearances, Reichert has evinced an impressive talent for projecting submerged oceans of soft, feel-my-pain emotion under a stoic, tough-cop exterior--the sort of potent mix of sublimated masculine sexuality and needy vulnerability that suburban women find compelling.

Reichert, whose views on many issues remain undefined, is likely to face one or more tough challengers in the Republican primary, though the state party's two Great White Hopes--Dino Rossi and Rob McKenna--have already committed to other races, for governor and attorney general respectively. Alben also faces a primary challenge, from also-ran Heidi Behrens-Benedict, a three-time loser to Dunn.