JUDGING FROM presidential hopeful Bill Bradley's uninspired speech at Seattle Central Community College on Wednesday evening, February 23 (not to mention the low-key audience), it's apparent that the Democratic race is not where the action is. Watching softy Bradley split hairs over who's got more environmental and pro-choice cred, he or Clinton's stiff right-hand man, is a yawner. Bradley is, however, caught up in one of the most interesting political standoffs in years: a battle with Republican insurgent John McCain over what should be Bradley's bread and butter -- dissatisfied Democrats and maverick Independent voters. That group, however, made up more than 50 percent of McCain's victory numbers in Michigan last week.

Washington, home of more than a few self-proclaimed free thinkers, is the perfect place for McCain and Bradley to duke it out over this turn-of-the-century block of voters. (Tuesday's results -- thanks to our state's convoluted nominating process -- carry little weight. Most of Washington's delegates to the summer's presidential nominating conventions won't be selected until our March 7 caucuses. Only 12 Republican delegates out of 37 were scooped up on Tuesday. No Democratic delegates were pledged.)

It's not clear how the Bradley-McCain scrap will shake down at next Tuesday's more important caucuses, when the remainder of the Republican delegates and all of the Democratic delegates are chosen. Bornwyn Coltrane, who showed up at SCCC to hear Bradley, hasn't decided whom she'll ultimately vote for. The 27-year-old Democrat from Queen Anne is a teacher, and appreciates Bradley's vow to double Title I funding for schools. But she also thinks that, for a Republican, McCain is an attractive candidate. "I think he's real," she says.

"I would love to see a Bradley-McCain race," says 52-year-old Bradley campaign volunteer John Clift. "I think either one could threaten the other for the Independent vote." Clift identifies himself as an Independent.

Even Bradley's press secretary Eric Hauser gives McCain cred: "People see [McCain] in the same way they see Bradley, with dignity and candor."

Voters at Wednesday's McCain event at downtown's Pier 55 reveal the same mixed message. Twenty-seven-year-old Sam Hupart, an Independent who leans left, says, "John McCain isn't lying and pandering the way Gore and Bradley are." Hupart then stops and amends his quote: "Make that just Gore."

If McCain faced Gore in a general election, Hupart says he would definitely vote for McCain. But what if, somehow, it became a Bradley-McCain battle? "I'd have to think about it," Hupart responds.

The two candidates seem to be running parallel campaigns for the Independent vote, both pushing against their party rivals for definition, and blurring the categories. McCain is now alternating between former presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Reagan to show he's both more liberal and more conservative than rival George Bush Jr. Evidently, McCain's tactic is working. Bush, according to the McCain fans at Wednesday's rally, is a polo-shirt-wearing, country-club-attending frat boy -- a figurehead of the "established, rich, fat, white man." These pejoratives are usually splattered on Republicans by lefties like Ralph Nader, not by Republican senators.

Over at Bradley's basketball-court campaign stop at SCCC, the former New Jersey senator employs the same tactic. Bradley makes Gore out to be a conservative, anti-choice, pro-campaign-finance-embezzling, racist health-care dolt. Oh, and a "poster boy for the NRA." Pandering to the rebels, Bradley eventually announces that it would be Independent voters who pick the next president.

Unfortunately, at the moment, Independent voters appear to have more of a crush on McCain than Bradley. McCain may have fairly hard-line conservative politics, but he's got that... image. Prisoner of war, sincere guy, laid-back wisecracker. And more important, McCain's obsession with campaign finance reform (an issue that Bush tellingly thinks will topple the Republican party) is a signpost for a much deeper issue for expatriate Democrats: corporate power. Despite 14 years in Washington, McCain is portrayed as the outsider, the maverick, and the crossover-voting magnet. In fact, 29 percent of the Democrats who turned out in Michigan on Tuesday, February 22 voted for McCain. Forty-five percent of the Independents who turned out voted for McCain as well. More to the point, nearly 20 percent of all registered Democrats in Michigan voted for McCain.

"I'm sure we'll get significant numbers of votes in the same way that Ronald Reagan did in 1980 and 1984," McCain told The Stranger. "And no voter that I know of, with rare exception, is Machiavellian enough to say they're going to vote in a Republican primary just so they can [see that Bush is defeated]. A CNN/USA Today poll showed that I defeat Al Gore by 25 points [if the election were today]. George Bush defeats him by five points. Now, if you're only interested in a Democratic victory, then the last thing you want to see is John McCain as the nominee."

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