King County Executive Ron Sims and former state supreme court justice Phil Talmadge continue to face a steep uphill climb in their efforts to catch the Democratic gubernatorial frontrunner, Attorney General Christine Gregoire. But Gregoire isn't home free; her support may be softer than it appears on the surface. She could be vulnerable if voters become more aware of allegations of ethical and management lapses that have dogged her in recent years, according to data drawn from two recent internal campaign polls.

Currently, however, the Gregoire camp is brimming with confidence, and with good reason. A March 27-30 statewide survey of 600 likely voters by Democratic pollster Mark Mellman shows her holding a commanding lead. In an open primary, Gregoire garners 36 percent support, with Sims and Talmadge little more than tiny specks in her rearview mirror, polling 11 and 4 percent respectively (Republican Dino Rossi draws 23 percent). If this year's primary is closed--limited only to Democrats--Gregoire still crushes Sims, 55 percent to 17 percent. Last November, she led Sims 48-21 in a previous Mellman poll.

Nevertheless, Gregoire has weaknesses. Known mostly for fronting the national tobacco settlement negotiations--for which she wins strong approval from voters--Gregoire's favorables sink when voters are told that she received substantial campaign contributions from the same law firms that were paid millions to negotiate the deal, and when they learn of administrative shortcomings in her office--including the well-publicized failure to file a timely appeal in a case that cost the state $17.8 million--according to an April 3-5 poll of 500 registered voters conducted for the Talmadge campaign.

So Gregoire had reason to pray on Sunday, when the Seattle Times published a front-page report that her aides secretly subverted an ostensibly independent review of the AG's office in the wake of the blown appeal, getting revelations about serious systemic management failures written out of the final draft. It was a serious hit, but will it register? A day earlier, in her latest triumph, Gregoire unexpectedly won the endorsement of the Washington Education Association over Sims or Talmadge, who both eagerly courted the teachers' support.

sandeep@thestranger.com

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