The lights dimmed in the crowded hall at the Sheraton Tacoma, where last Saturday 1,500 of Washington State's Democratic activists expectantly awaited rallying cries from the first of the party's gubernatorial candidates. Confetti and streamers fell. A spotlight played over the crowd. To the sound of martial drumming, a small army of Attorney General Christine Gregoire's foot soldiers, hoisting tall poles adorned with Gregoire placards like battlefield banners, streamed up to the stage, where their queen looked on with a we-are-well-pleased expression.

But King County Executive Ron Sims was clearly determined not to be outdone by his opponent's pageantry. When his turn came, a throbbing tribal beat, more African juju than Scottish war clan, filled the auditorium. The audience began to clap rhythmically as a crew from the Alpha Phi Alpha step team performed a synchronized hiphop dance routine. Two elaborately costumed ranks of young Asian women--the Filipino Youth Activities Drill Team--marched into the hall in regimented lockstep, followed by a large posse of Sims partisans. Their chieftain, standing at the podium, raised his fist in the air, gyrating it wildly.

In the battle of the floor shows, Sims won. Indeed, if you knew nothing about the governor's race except what transpired in the room, you would have exited thinking Sims was the frontrunner, Gregoire his pesky opponent. Sims roused the unrepresentative crowd of hardcore Democratic partisans with a barn-burning speech that deployed the emotive cadences of Baptist pulpit tub-thumping in the service of triumphalist liberal rhetoric.

"I am going to be a fearless governor," he declared, as he called for comprehensive reform of Washington State's regressive, anti-business tax code. "The B&O has got to go," he shouted, a reference to the business tax that is much maligned for being calculated on the basis of gross revenues rather than profits. He called for property tax relief and a reduced sales tax, all to be replaced by a graduated income tax. According to his campaign, the Sims plan would reduce the tax burden for around 75 percent of the state's taxpayers, while increasing taxes on the wealthy.

Gregoire's preceding speech ignored Sims, part of her strategy to present herself as the all-but-anointed Democratic nominee. She focused on past achievements, including her highly praised role in negotiating the national tobacco settlement,. Whereas Sims beat up on initiative king Tim Eyman--"I want to send him a message: There's a new sheriff in town," Sims thundered--Gregoire attacked Republican candidate Dino Rossi.

Ability to fire up a crowd of liberal activists is a far from perfect barometer of the horse race. By all conventional measures, Gregoire remains well ahead of Sims. Gregoire has raised more than $2 million so far, including $450,000 in May alone. Sims, by contrast, has raised less than $1 million. Every poll has shown Gregoire holding a comfortable lead statewide.

But Gregoire's cautious centrism--"I'm a pragmatist," she said after her appearance as she declared Sims' bold tax-reform proposal "non-deliverable"--receives only lukewarm support from the Democratic partisan base. With the state switching this year to a closed primary that could sharply depress turnout from middle-of-the-road voters, this race is not yet over. Though he remains a long shot, Sims' strategy of consolidating a vote-rich Seattle and King County through a bear hug embrace of liberal shibboleths could yet produce an upset.