It's no more Mr. Nice Guy for Ron Sims. It's Mr. I'm a Democrat and My Opponent's Not. Though as kiss-the-babies smooth as ever--Sims will never be mistaken for fire-breathing outsider Phil Talmadge--Sims' new resolve to stake his campaign on his support for sharp-elbowed positions on the left represents a counter-intuitive, but potentially fruitful, rhetorical shift for King County's glad-hander-in-chief in his increasingly energized bid to become Washington State's next governor.

Sims sat down with The Stranger at the BluWater in Leschi last Saturday. Cool breezes from off the waters of Lake Washington wafted across the crowded patio, but they did nothing to turn down the thermostat on the red-hot liberal rhetoric coming out of Sims' mouth. His positions may not have changed, but his language certainly has. Lagging behind Attorney General Christine Gregoire in the primary race, the King County executive made it clear he will not be shy in upcoming months about casting himself as an unrepentant pro-government crusader and Democrats' Democrat who will push proposals that would mark a sharp break from the tepid centrism of retiring two-term governor Gary Locke--and, not coincidentally, from Gregoire.

Rarely without a smile on his face, Sims is an establishment politician more typically known for his mainstream integration with political and business elites, and for trading on his congeniality, than for aggressive, bare-knuckled stands on liberal principles. Sensing a political opening, however, as Gregoire has relentlessly steered to the center--to the extent she has said anything substantive at all--the newly fired-up Sims is determined to draw sharp contrasts on ostensibly third-rail issues like increasing taxes to fund education, a state income-tax proposal, and gay marriage. For the first time, he is going on the offensive, calling out Gregoire by name.

Sims stresses education as a central campaign theme, particularly his staunch backing of a proposed initiative that would generate $1 billion per year to shore up the state's creaky educational system by upping the state sales tax a penny. The time has come for such a plan, Sims says, citing the fact that the state has cut education dollars for 13 consecutive years. Gregoire, conversely, has expressed strong reservations about the proposal.

"We differ dramatically. I would fund education. She says, 'We have to have accountability first,'" Sims says. "People cite accountability when they don't want something to happen." Democrats, Sims argues, will endorse his more activist, socially conscious approach to government: "She simply says, 'Life's tough.' I say, 'We can make a difference.'"

Sims is also calling for a full-scale revision of Washington's tax structure, which he considers far too regressive. That includes an income tax. "I do intend to tax the wealthy," he says. "Senior citizens, the middle class, the poor will see some of their taxes lowered."

Even more notable, Sims is coming out swinging in favor of gay marriage. He touts his decision to work behind the scenes with Lambda Legal and the Northwest Women's Law Center, whom he invited to sue the county on behalf of gay couples seeking to marry. Gregoire opposes gay marriage.

"It is a fundamental issue of civil rights--period," Sims says. "Gregoire says the state's not ready for it yet. Do you know what that sounds like to a person of color? She says, 'We're not ready, we're not ready.' Well, if you're a Democrat and a leader, you make people ready."

In part, Sims is running against a Locke administration that has alienated core Democratic constituencies. "I'm not out to throw rocks at Gary," Sims says, but then emphasizes that he has "very little in common in terms of style, substance, [and] outcome" with the current governor.

Sims' shift to the left is high risk, but in a state with a large liberal base, if he can paint Gregoire as out of step with Democratic values, it could succeed, at least in the primary. The architect of Sims' new strategy, campaign manager Tim Hatley, is no fool, combining a cheery just-win-baby ethos with a predilection for going for the jugular--commendable attributes in a political operative. His plan is to bang the liberal drum, as an overconfident Gregoire, already moving right in anticipation of the general election, finds herself out of step with Democratic primary voters. With fundraising on the rise--Sims took in a credible $230,000 in March--Hatley predicts he will have a hefty $1 million media budget for the primaries, enough for a three-week ad blitz.

Gregoire still holds major advantages. Recent polling shows her well ahead. She has raised $1.4 million so far, about twice what Sims has raised, and has more than $1 million on hand. But one huge question mark hangs over her camp. Some $300,000 of her cash has come from Emily's List, a national PAC that backs pro-choice women; the state Public Disclosure Commission is currently investigating whether the way those contributions were raised violates Washington's anti-bundling laws. If the PDC rules against her, Gregoire may have to return that money. A ruling is expected soon.

Still, even if his turn left wins him the primary, it could cost Sims the general election. Republicans are fired up behind former state senator Dino Rossi's gubernatorial bid. Rossi's fundraising has been strong, with $1.6 million raised so far, and his compassionate conservative message will play well in the Puget Sound suburbs, Rossi consultant James Keough contends. Keough admits that Rossi would prefer to run against Sims, against whom he could draw clearer distinctions.

Gregoire campaign manager Tim Zenk is unimpressed with the new Sims. "I think Ron Sims has done the Chris Gregoire camp an enormous favor," he says. "He's creating Chris as a centrist between Dino Rossi on the far right and Ron Sims on the far left. Washington voters are in the center." Sims, he scoffs, is running a Seattle-centric campaign while Gregoire is running statewide: "This party is more moderate than Tim Hatley, who hasn't left Pioneer Square in 20 years."

But Hatley's strategy is not so easily dismissed. Gregoire is clearly vulnerable to being painted as too conservative for many Democrats, and Republicans still have an uphill struggle to capture the governorship. Asked if Sims risks coming across as too liberal to win, Hatley grins and shakes his head. "Whoever wins the [Democratic] primary will be the next governor," he says flatly.