My encounters with Dino Rossi always take the same form. The Rossi pitch typically starts with a cheery "hey, it's my stalker" - we crossed paths a lot this spring -- and then maybe a little chitchat about the latest political gossip. It smoothly slides into a disarming, if not quite self-deprecating, personal anecdote or two, like the one about the recent encounter with a surly deli counterman in Seattle who told Rossi he must have a pretty wife since "ugly boys always do." Punch line: "Your wife must be beautiful then," Rossi fired back. Or the line about his first winning race for the state senate in 1996, when he talks about how he outworked his opponent by knocking on 15,000 doors, but was "bitten by four dogs in the process." Or the one about the guy in Mabton who introduced him at a political forum by announcing Rossi was the only guy in a 10-mile radius wearing a suit who wasn't six feet underground.

It's Sales & Marketing 101, the soft-sell version: Put the mark at ease, use a little misdirection to break down his kick-the-tires wariness. Make him feel like you don't want anything from him. Rossi has it down pat. Like all great salesmen, he makes it look natural, unforced--he's just taking a few minutes out of his busy day to shoot the breeze with a new friend. Of course, Dino Rossi does want something. Something big. With a fierce ambition only hinted at under his breezy exterior, he wants you to make him the next governor of Washington State.

With the customer halfway hooked, the pitch changes direction. The tone stays light--don't want to scare off a potential buyer--but the patter picks up some sting. Now you get a ding or two delivered against his likely Democratic opponent in the governor's race, Attorney General Christine Gregoire, always presented behind an infectious grin that takes just enough of the bite out of the hit. He knows how to stay on the right side of the line that separates aggressive from mean. "She's on three sides of every issue," he might confide with an exaggerated eye roll, or he might mention how he sat there onstage at the gubernatorial forum in May listening as Gregoire blasted him as too conservative for the state. He thought to himself, "Is that all you got, lady?" he'll tell you, shaking his head in seeming wonderment at her egregious bad taste.

And then, before things get too nasty, Rossi shifts gears again. The pitch is personal now, biographical, positive and uplifting. He dives into some aspect of his Horatio Alger life story: the son of a single mother, a guy who started out life in a Seattle housing project, moved to the suburbs, worked his way through Seattle University, and made his fortune from scratch. He knows, with the surety of a perpetual optimist, that the same opportunities are available to all, or would be if government just got out of the way of the other hard-working citizens just trying to get a leg up like he did.

And through the pitch, there is one constant. The deal closer, the secret weapon, is always the same: the Rossi laugh, that big, warm, inviting burst of sound that punctuates each line, each rhetorical stiletto jab, that invites the listener in on all the fun. It throws Rossi's head back and creases his eyes with its sheer, unadulterated joie de vivre. It makes it hard not to join in, not to fall under his sway. It's a potent political weapon, a master salesman's best tool--in a just world, Rossi would have to apply for a concealed-carry permit to use it. It projects sincerity, self-confidence, accessibility. Unless you're careful, it will work its magic, make you want to buy what this guy is selling without ever bothering to peer under the hood. No need, right? A guy this likable has got to be trustworthy.

But if you do happen to check out the engine--and it's not so easy, given all the glare coming off the chassis--you'll find that Rossi is really a rather conventional apostle of Bush-style conservatism: Government exists to enable business, not to curb the social dislocations caused by the hard realities of capitalism, and to promote "traditional" (read: conservative Catholic) values. Rossi's dog, aptly enough, is named Dubya. Big tax breaks for business subsidized by cuts to social programs? Sure. Rolling back important regulations? Gotta get rid of all of that damn red tape that's stifling our economy. Law and order, deference to authority, black-and-white delineations of right and wrong, a Seattle Times-style notion of constrained suburban propriety? Bring 'em on.

For two decades, Washington State Republicans have lost, and lost some more, not because Washington State is so overwhelmingly Democratic--it isn't--but because state Republicans were so overwhelmingly incompetent. With a handful of exceptions, at election time they could be relied upon to put up standard-bearers committed to a hard-edged, ideologically driven issue set that scared off the suburban moderates they need to win. In 1996, after a brutal primary battle, Republicans nominated Ellen Craswell as their gubernatorial candidate, a far-right Christian conservative so uncompromising she later abandoned the party after declaring it too liberal. In 2000 they settled, late in the game, on John Carlson, the bright but extremely conservative KVI talker who led the successful battle to do away with affirmative action in Washington State. In one of the most secular-minded, pro-choice states in the country, both lost decisively to Gary Locke.

But Democrats cannot count on the Republicans to self-destruct this year, not with a skillful politician like Rossi leading the charge. "Dino Rossi is exactly the kind of candidate we need to win in a state like Washington," says Washington State Republican Party chair Chris Vance. "For 20 years Democrats [in Washington State] have stereotyped Republicans as scary right-wing crazies. It won't work this time because Dino Rossi is not frightening. He's suave, good-looking, well dressed, intelligent, mature, a dad from the suburbs. He's not a character or a goofball."

Nor do Democrats have the advantages of incumbency, not with Locke retiring after two uneventful terms. Instead, while Rossi runs in the Republican primary unopposed by any credible challenger, the Democrats are locked in a bruising battle pitting front-running Gregoire against a scrappy and left-leaning, albeit underfunded, bid by King County Executive Ron Sims. In other words, it's no sure thing, but Rossi could actually win.

So who is he?

Rossi, 44 years old, made his pile in commercial real estate. He picked up entrepreneurial habits early, and if there's one thing he knows, it's how to avoid the danger zones in getting to yes. Taking a page from George W. Bush's 2000 playbook, he bills himself as a "fiscal conservative with a social conscience." It's an effective tag line, encapsulating the right kind of conservative message for a state where, outside of Seattle and the sparsely populated areas of Eastern Washington, voters tend toward the center.

Rossi knows he has an uphill climb--there hasn't been a Republican governor in office in Washington State since 1984. But he also has that supreme salesman's confidence that he can move people in his direction. During an interview a few months back, Rossi said to me that 80 percent of politics is "selling ideas," but what he is really selling is himself; the ideas, particularly the more divisive social and cultural beliefs, are safely hidden away under the surface sheen of his obvious personal charisma. Ask him his stand on abortion and his stock reply is to say he's "not running for the Supreme Court." Ask him his stand on the war, and his first response is likely to be that as governor he will "have nothing to do with world peace."

Rossi's seven-year record as a state senator--he resigned late last year so he could campaign full-time (and so he could continue to fundraise during the legislative session while Gregoire, as a state official, was enjoined from doing so)--reveals the depths of his conservatism. He believes that abortion should be outlawed except in cases of rape, incest, or when the life of the mother is threatened. He opposed I-120, the initiative that codified Roe v. Wade into state law. He supported I-200, the successful anti-affirmative-action initiative championed by Carlson. He received a 100 percent rating from the Washington Conservative Union in 2003, one of only five state senators to do so. He voted the way the Association of Washington Business wanted 20 out of 21 times in 2003.

He slipped up at a private meet-and-greet organized by some prominent UW law professors last spring. He had them eating out of his hand until he mentioned that the last book he had read was Ann Coulter's Treason, according to a story that circulated widely in local Democratic circles (the Rossi camp did not deny it when I asked). He subscribes to the mainstream view of the post-Reagan Republican Party that government is the problem rather than part of the solution. Revealingly, in May he attacked Gregoire's job plan, which she says will create 250,000 jobs in the next four years, by asserting to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "Government does not create jobs. All government can do is actually stifle growth and kill jobs."

Still, for the most part he's good at avoiding controversy, and he built a reputation as a consensus-builder and rising star in 2003 when, as chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, he pushed through (with a big assist from Governor Gary Locke) a tough no-new-taxes budget that eliminated a gaping $2.6 billion deficit, albeit at the expense of teachers, state employees, other union members, and the poor. And so far, at least, he's had great success on the campaign trail in cultivating a moderate image as the new, suburban-friendly face of Washington State Republicanism. Rossi isn't just wowing the locals: The Wall Street Journal profiled him alongside Barack Obama as a rising "state-level star" earlier this year.

He certainly doesn't understand much about the nuances of urban culture. During a conversation last spring, he mentioned to me reading a story in the Seattle Weekly that (rather stupidly) dubbed him a metrosexual. He said he had no idea what the term meant. "I told my wife he called me a metrosexual, and she explained it to me," he said. "I said to her, 'Isn't that illegal in about 40 states?'" And then he laughs that Rossi laugh.

He's also proven himself to be a savvy politician who has learned from his mistakes. He narrowly lost his first bid for the state senate in 1992 when he let his opponent paint him as an extremist on abortion. When he came back to win the seat in 1996, he made sure to control the debate, keeping it focused on jobs and the economy, where his views may have been conservative but also seemed far less threatening--and that is clearly what he has been doing, and hopes to continue doing, in this campaign too.

Still, for a candidate like Rossi, the road to victory is an uncertain one. State Democrats and members of the Gregoire camp routinely express a justifiable frustration that Rossi has gotten a free ride from the press. "Extremism with a smile is still extremism," is how Gregoire spokesperson Morton Brilliant rather pointedly put it recently. State Dem chair Paul Berendt also thinks Rossi has gotten by on image while his true colors have gone unnoticed: "I think he's fooled a lot of people."

And both Democratic candidates are smart political veterans who understand the dynamics of tough campaigns, and both have a lot to recommend them. Like Rossi, Gregoire, a centrist, is running largely on personality and biography. She too has a compelling life story, one that shares notable similarities to Rossi's. She too is self-made, the child of a single mother who worked as a short-order cook in Auburn, who went on to become the first female deputy attorney general in the state, and then, as the first female AG, took a lead role in negotiating the national tobacco settlement. On the campaign trail she can be maddeningly unspecific about what she intends to do should she become governor--what you might call "the vision thing"--but she also projects toughness, grit, and a genuine no-nonsense determination to find solutions to economic problems the state faces, and has begun to differentiate herself from the tepid, do-nothing Locke era.

Her opponent, Sims, running a more liberal, ideas-driven campaign, has trailed throughout the primary race. On August 4, however, he unveiled a substantive tax-reform plan that overhauls Washington State's deeply regressive tax structure while eliminating all business taxation. He is calling for eliminating the state's much-reviled business and occupation tax, the state's portion of the sales tax, and providing a $100,000 property-tax exemption, all to be replaced by a graduated income tax. Even more impressive, the Sims plan takes advantage of the federal tax code to increase state revenues without upping the overall tax burden for Washington voters.

But though neither Democrat is a slouch, Rossi is not a candidate to be taken lightly. I found out why back in April when I joined Rossi in an elementary school parking lot on a Saturday morning in Edmonds as he pumped up some of his campaign volunteers for a day of doorbelling. I liked him instantly. "He just may have the potential for crossover appeal," I thought. But I didn't know for sure until I'd shadowed him for a couple of hours as he doorbelled in a quiet suburban neighborhood of split-level, middle-class homes with neatly tended lawns.

An encounter at one home proved that he was for real. After Rossi identified himself, the wary homeowner, a Democrat, demanded to know whether Rossi supported the war in Iraq. Rossi, true to form, initially deflected the question. The man persisted, and Rossi finally answered that yes, he supported "the president's war on terrorism."

No sale, right? Wrong. Because then Rossi smoothly changed the subject to the need for pro-jobs, business-friendly policies in a state suffering high unemployment. Smiling and sincere, his patter as smooth and polished as a mirror, he dropped in a few lines about his life story as he explained that he had the life experience to understand, he said, how to get the state moving in the right direction again.

It worked. The man began nodding as Rossi worked through his rap. By the time he was done, this antiwar Democrat was assuring the candidate he did not always vote along party lines, and enthusiastically thanked Rossi for visiting. "We'll just put him down as a four," meaning someone who leans Democra, Rossi says to me as we walk away. And then he laughs.

It's one small victory, but it's a telling one. An excerpt from my notes for that day: "John Edwards star power. 1000-watt smile. Very conservative, but this guy is for real."

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