King County Sheriff Dave Reichert, the Republican candidate for Congress on the Eastside, is Mr. Warm and Fuzzy in the eyes of voters. Or at least he was Mr. Warm and Fuzzy, until national Democrats launched a post-primary television ad blitz--uncountered by Republicans for close to two crucial weeks--that appears to be turning Reichert into Mr. Extreme and Unprepared.

Reichert, who led former KIRO talker Dave Ross, the Democratic candidate, by 16 points in an early September pre-primary poll, has now fallen 10 points behind Ross according to a poll of 500 likely voters conducted between September 29 and October 3 and released last week. Much of the shift appears to be due to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's hard-hitting attack ads, which portray Reichert as unready for federal office and too socially conservative for the swing district. Popular retiring Republican incumbent Jennifer Dunn was known for her moderation on issues like abortion and gay marriage, winning reelection six times even as the once conservative 8th congressional district has gradually trended Democratic, supporting Al Gore and Gary Locke in 2000.

"Things are going really, really, really good," crows Ross campaign manager Marco Lowe, who sounds like he really, really, really means it. "If you run a conservative campaign like [Reichert's] you won't get support in the 8th, which is a moderate and independent district." Ross has launched follow-up in-house ads, which portray the former radio personality as an independent thinker willing to buck Democratic Party orthodoxy.

A neophyte candidate for partisan office, Reichert sailed through the primaries despite spirited challenges from three other conservatives. Unfamiliar with many issues, halting and at times unorthodox on the campaign trail--he generated headlines after storming out of one primary debate after complaining about attack ads by Republican rivals--Reichert nonetheless garnered 43 percent of the primary vote, with his strongest support coming from moderate to liberal Republicans.

Reichert was well liked by voters, chiefly due to the glowing coverage he received, both locally and nationally, for running to ground Gary Ridgway, the Green River killer. What most voters didn't know, however, was how far right Reichert, who only announced he was a Republican a year ago and has a long track record of working with liberals and Democrats, moved to establish his Republican bona fides in the primary race.

But they're learning, chiefly as a result of a series of three ads funded by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which is spending more than $1 million to take the sheen off Reichert's image. One DCCC ad painted Reichert as an anti-choice extremist, and another blasts the sheriff for his endorsement of the restrictive Bush position on embryonic stem cell research.

"People may like him and people may think he does a great job as sheriff," says Stacy Kerr, a spokesperson for the DCCC, "but Reichert is positioned well outside the mainstream."

In other words, the tried-and-true Democratic formula in Washington State, of blasting Republicans as far-right reactionaries on social issues, appears to be working on the Eastside. And in Reichert's case, it's not disingenuous, according to Karen Cooper, executive director of Washington Pro-Choice NARAL. She claims that Reichert, an ultra-conservative Lutheran, opposes not only abortion, but also most forms of contraception and sex education.

Given his initial positive image, however, Reichert remains a formidable candidate. Pri- vate Republican polling shows Reichert still leading narrowly, according to Chris Vance, Republican state party chair. Vance admits, though, that the Democratic ads have had an effect: "They did a very smart thing by being ready to go right after the primary. They stole a couple of weeks on us." The National Republican Campaign Committee and the Reichert campaign have begun their own major ad campaigns, which include sharp attacks on Ross, and Reichert is sharply curtailing his mano-a-mano face-offs with Ross, where his less-than-sturdy grasp of policy questions has sometimes been apparent.

sandeep@thestranger.com

Support The Stranger