If you were looking for a visual metaphor to sum up the current conventional wisdom regarding the Democratic gubernatorial race, you needed look no farther than the façade of Town Hall on the evening of Sunday, March 21. In preparation for a candidates' forum sponsored by a new liberal grassroots PAC, Democracy for Washington, the Roman-revival-style building was festooned with a seemingly endless display of jaunty red, white, and blue Christine Gregoire placards.

Nestled forlornly between them, only occasionally breaking up the monotony, hung a pitiably small handful of yellow and black Ron Sims signs. But rarest of all were the blue and white colors of Phil Talmadge, the former state senator and state supreme court justice who has positioned himself as a bomb-throwing anti-establishment outsider. Unfortunately, he hasn't had much in the way of tangible results. The general perception so far, even among many of his fans, is that Talmadge can't win.

That's too bad, because Talmadge is far and away the most interesting of the three contenders. Seemingly relishing his role as the political equivalent of the guy with the lampshade on his head, he has provided the only sparks of life in what has been an exceedingly dull party, winning private praise but few public displays of support. While his all-encompassing attacks on the status quo are so fierce that they sometimes leave the impression that the candidate is in desperate need of a soothing massage, the substance of his critiques clearly resonates with disaffected rank-and-file Democrats. He blasts the state's controversial Boeing 7E7 deal at every opportunity, castigating Locke and Co. for giving a company addicted to outsourcing a whopping $3.2 billion in tax breaks, along with a host of other unseemly goodies. "We got snookered on that deal," he flatly informed the 150 or so attendees at the Town Hall forum, winning applause.

Talmadge, like his opponents, calls for pro-labor, pro-education policies. Unlike them, however, he openly pushes the need for comprehensive tax reform--i.e., an income tax--to ensure funding for progressive initiatives. Stylistically, he doesn't shy away from asking the sort of pointed questions that make his well-heeled competitors uncomfortable. He prides himself on straight talk, railing against "the culture of timidity" in Olympia. The state business and occupation tax, according to Talmadge, is "a crappy tax." The state's economic development programs are also "by and large crap," he says.

And he slams Gregoire at every opportunity. In a Monday interview, he described the attorney general as "ethically blinded" for giving a $25,000 no-bid legal contract to Preston Gates & Ellis after the law firm hosted a Gregoire fundraiser. He referred to her as "a clone of Gary Locke" and said it is "annoying" to watch her operate because she constantly "says one thing and does another." He contended that she "supported every single corporate loophole that the legislature passed at the governor's suggestion," and scoffed at Gregoire's recent public attempts to rhetorically distance herself from the Boeing giveaway.

Talmadge is not shy about attacking Sims, either. Though he describes Sims as a friend, he decries the county exec as "part of the political establishment as well" and pointedly says that Sims "has to explain why the elections office of King County can't function and why Sound Transit is such a wonderful thing."

"What I'm trying to do is to focus on issues people want to see addressed, but the establishment doesn't want to talk about," Talmadge said when asked about his aggressive and unconventional approach.

While Talmadge won the most enthusiastic response from Town Hall's decidedly liberal crowd (event sponsor Democracy for Washington is a spin-off of Seattle's former Howard Dean campaign)--Talmadge's campaign remains mired in a twilight zone of low expectations. Fundraising has been anemic, with only $214,000 raised so far (almost all in small contributions). And the heavy hitters from Big Labor--three of the state's most powerful unions: the Machinists, the Washington Federation of State Employees, and the Service Employees International Union--have cast their lot with Gregoire, dealing a heavy blow to Talmadge's hopes (and to Sims').

While Talmadge flails in search of political support, Gregoire is running a textbook floating-above-the-fray frontrunner's campaign: She is cautious, noncommittal, and careful to cultivate an aura of invincibility. So far, with some $1.4 million in the bank and an organization in every county in the state, she's shown every outward sign of success.

The Sims campaign, revamped after a staff shakeup and with a retooled message in the wake of the King County executive's painfully slow start, continues to choke on Gregoire's dust. Still, Sims is showing new signs of life. Fundraising is up, allowing him to make up ground on Gregoire. Sims has pulled in some $200,000 so far in March alone, and will end the month with more than $500,000 in the bank, according to campaign manager Tim Hatley.

While Sims remains preternaturally cheerful in his public appearances, attempting to charm his way into the voters' hearts with anecdotes drawn from his personal life, he also has begun talking more substantively about bread-and-butter issues like education, transportation, and health care. At Town Hall, he made an effort to highlight some of his differences with Gregoire, albeit elliptically. Hatley contends that Sims' more liberal stance on gay marriage, and his support for a sales-tax boost to fund education, will become more evident as the campaign progresses.

With his campaign stuck in neutral, Talmadge's afflict-the-comfortable show may not be playing much longer. He admits that unless his campaign shows significant signs of progress in the next 30 to 60 days, he will seriously consider dropping out of the race. That very real possibility leaves him unperturbed, though. "I can look myself in the mirror every morning. If I have to walk away from it, I'll do so with my head high," he says.