When Alex Alben, a 45-year-old retired RealNetworks executive, threw his hat into the ring for the Eastside congressional seat last September, he envisioned his real fight would come not in the primary, but in the general election against powerhouse Republican incumbent Jennifer Dunn. But times have changed, and so have Alben's political circumstances. In February, Dunn surprised the local political world by announcing her retirement. As a result, the Democratic primary race is now shaping up as a dogfight in which Alben begins anew as a decided underdog--albeit one with fundraising and institutional advantages--battling the celebrity of the uncrowned king of Seattle media, KIRO talker Dave Ross, and the slowly accreted name recognition of fourth-time candidate Heidi Behrens-Benedict.

Alben formally kicked off his bid for the now open seat on Monday night with a barbecue at the Pickering Barn in Issaquah that drew about 200 supporters. He declared himself an "incumbent-buster" and talked about himself, with every sign of outward self-assurance, as the next representative from the 8th Congressional District. But his sly digs at Ross--"In this election I believe that talk is cheap and experience counts," he told his supporters--indicate the sharply altered circumstances of the race.

The late entry of Ross, who on his highly rated morning radio show styles himself the leader of the "Eastlake Avenue Crusaders for Common Sense," has transformed the political dynamic. Though he begins with little time to build an organization or raise money, he is clearly the man to beat. A private poll that Democratic state party chair Paul Berendt used to recruit Ross showed that the KIRO host has 80 percent name recognition in the district, while Alben remains largely unknown. A recent poll for KING 5 quantified the scope of that advantage: Ross drew 45 percent support, Behrens-Benedict pulled 25 percent, while Alben trailed badly with only 8 percent support.

But that poll is likely more an indication of name recognition than an accurate assessment of the state of the race. Name recognition can be bought, and with his early start, Alben has raised more than $600,000 so far (including some $200,000 of his own money). He enjoys the support of key constituency groups, including the Washington State Labor Council and the Washington Education Association (Ross is on record supporting charter schools). Governor Gary Locke and five of the state's six Democratic members of congress also have endorsed Alben. A visit to his Bellevue campaign office last week uncovered a beehive of activity, with five paid staffers soliciting funds and plotting strategy, and volunteers manning a phone bank. Alben plans to spend more than $1 million on the primary alone, according to campaign manager Ben Vaught. Ross, by contrast, says he expects to raise in the neighborhood of $500,000.

And Ross' entry into the political arena has been a bit bumpy. His decision to stay on the air after announcing he would run has prompted negative editorials and complaints from Alben's campaign and state Republicans, who claim it is a potential violation of Federal Election Commission rules. Ross, however, says he is sanguine about his decision to stay on the air. "FEC law applies if I try to raise money on the air or urge people to vote for me. I haven't brought [my candidacy] up, haven't raised money." He plans to give up his show in July when he formally files papers establishing his candidacy.

In the meantime, Ross has not been idle. He's begun hiring campaign staff: Marco Lowe, currently the mayor's community liaison and a veteran of Nickels' and Locke's campaigns, is the new campaign manager (on a part-time basis until he leaves his city job in July). And Ross has hired a full-time field coordinator. Lowe says he is bracing for "a very vigorous primary."

So far on issues, the extent of the differences between the candidates is more of emphasis than substance. Alben stresses the need for job creation, and touts his high-tech business background, while Ross calls the Iraq war the "overriding issue" of this election. Questions have recently arisen in Democratic circles about the extent of Ross' commitment to abortion rights, based on one of his radio commentaries on late-term abortion. Ross, however, points out that the commentary was satirical, and says he is fully pro-choice.

Behrens-Benedict remains a wild card in the race. While she has not raised significant cash, she retains a loyal base of support from past campaigns.