With former City Attorney Mark Sidran's splashy and well-attended campaign kickoff at the convention center last Wednesday, March 24, the race to replace three-term incumbent Attorney General Christine Gregoire is shaping up as a dogfight. The big news of the breakfast event was Governor Gary Locke's surprise early endorsement of Sidran, a highly unusual move in a contested Democratic primary.

On the Democratic side, the battle is between measured centrist Sidran and crusading liberal populist Deborah Senn, who represent opposite poles of the Democratic ideological spectrum.

The Sidran breakfast drew 1,300 attendees at the ungodly hour of 7:30 a.m., including an impressive array of the region's political and business establishment. Aside from Locke, former Governor Booth Gardner, former Mayor Norm Rice, and four of nine Seattle City Council members turned up to back Sidran's bid. The event was also a financial coup, raising more than $115,000, a hefty figure that should close much of the fundraising gap between Sidran and frontrunner Senn, who will have raised about $275,000 through the end of March.

Despite a superficial similarity in campaign rhetoric--both Senn and Sidran stress hot-button issues like predatory lending, domestic violence, and identity theft--the stylistic contrast between the two Democrats has all the subtlety of a slap to the face. Sidran is a bright, wryly witty, and smooth champion of conformist establishment values that sometimes leave him out of step with an anti-establishment city that prides itself on its libertarian celebration of nonconformity.

He has a reputation for straight talk, a perception he upheld during a recent interview with The Stranger. When one of his handlers prompted him to talk about his concern over the issue of domestic violence, Sidran allowed that it was an important issue, but then, rather admirably, admitted that the attorney general has little real jurisdiction over such issues.

Sidran touts himself first and foremost as a talented and experienced manager. He believes an emphasis on competence, rather than engagement in potentially divisive ideological battles, is what is most required from the state's next legal chief, pointing out that the attorney general is responsible for overseeing a public law office that boasts 490 staff attorneys.

Still, Sidran carries serious baggage. As city attorney, he was architect of the deeply controversial civility laws--The Stranger, which fiercely opposed those ordinances, once famously portrayed him with devil's horns, and spilled a great deal of ink pointing out how some of those laws had been found unconstitutional. He continues to defend those laws as a necessary step to preserve the vitality of downtown Seattle, but his law-and-order reputation clearly contributed to his narrow defeat to Greg Nickels in the 2001 mayoral race despite the rah-rah support of powerful establishment mouthpieces like the Seattle Times (and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer).

In one of the ironies of this race, Sidran, despite having never run for office outside of Seattle, is explicitly casting himself as the voice of the less liberal suburbs. In his kickoff speech, he joked that he is often told, "Mark, you're so law and order, so not Seattle," a characterization he embraced, going on to describe Seattle as "85 scenic square miles surrounded by reality."

On the other hand, Senn, despite two statewide victories, generates anxiety in some Democratic circles as a candidate too liberal and controversial to run effectively outside Seattle, especially in light of her poor showing in the Senate primary. Senn dismisses such concern, and a January Elway Poll, though more an indication of name recognition than anything else, shows Senn leading Sidran by a handy margin, 50-34 percent.

Senn is a very different sort of Democrat, with far greater affinity for Seattle's liberal politics. She emphasizes her tough regulatory record compiled over two high-profile terms as state insurance commissioner, during which time she fought insurance providers to expand coverage. Those battles she largely won--she proudly trumpets that she "never had a regulation overturned"--albeit at the cost of driving some insurers to pull out of the state. She sees the attorney general's post in a similar light, as "the people's lawyer." She says her victory would ensure continuity with Gregoire, who won plaudits by taking a lead role in negotiating the national tobacco settlement, and promises "a more activist approach" than her opponent.

Though instrumental in passing a Patient's Bill of Rights in Washington State, Senn was also criticized when, in the midst of her losing run for the U.S. Senate in 2000--she was trounced by eventual victor Maria Cantwell, who poured close to $6 million of her own money into the primary race--her office was de-accredited by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners for not maintaining enough examiners on staff. Energetic and a bit brusque, she has a reputation among detractors for being acerbic and confrontational, though that may say more about passive-aggressive, milquetoast Seattle than it does about Senn herself.

Republicans, who seem to respect Sidran as a Giuliani-like figure who tamed the liberal beast as city attorney, clearly prefer the match-up with Senn. King County Council Member Rob McKenna, the early Republican frontrunner, admits as much, saying he believes he will be able to draw sharper contrasts should she become the Democratic flag bearer. State Republican chair Chris Vance, furthermore, openly undermines Sidran's Democratic bona fides by asserting that several prominent Republicans privately say Sidran contacted them to explore the possibility of running as a Republican, though Vance will not name names. Asked about this claim, Sidran angrily denies that he ever considered switching parties.

The race on the Republican side, while less ideologically polarized, could be interesting as well. McKenna is a savvy politician and a prodigious fundraiser who combines a Clintonian love for the strategic nuances of political gamesmanship with a, well, Clintonian love for the wonkish details of governance. His instincts and core principles are clearly more conservative than either of his Democratic opponents. Like Senn, he portrays the AG as the people's lawyer, though by this he means fighting to get the government off of people's backs, rather than using it in an activist way to police the malfeasance of corporations.

His opponent, Mike Vaska, a partner at Foster Pepper & Shefelman, is running as an anti-politician. "I'm an experienced attorney, not a professional politician," he says by way of differentiating himself from all three of his opponents.