<strong>The message then:</strong> Patty Murray, in October of 2008, at Cheney Stadium in Tacoma.
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  • The message then: Patty Murray, in October of 2008, at Cheney Stadium in Tacoma.

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Almost two years ago, on a beautiful October afternoon toward the end of the last presidential campaign, I saw Patty Murray give a passionate warm-up speech at a rally with Joe Biden at Tacoma's Cheney Stadium. As with every event organized by the Obama campaign juggernaut, this one had a clear, unavoidable message—and just in case you somehow missed it, that message was spelled out for you on a placard affixed to the lectern: "Change We Need."

Fast forward to today. Barack Obama, who won Washington with nearly 58 percent of the vote in 2008, is almost exactly as popular here now as he was then. According to yesterday's Washington Poll, Obama currently has a job approval rating in this state of 58 percent. Out here, people still consider him to be a positive change agent—still "the change we need."

How about Murray?

She was first elected to the Senate as a "mom in tennis shoes" change agent in 1992 with 54 percent of the vote, re-elected as a successful incumbent in 1998 with 58 percent of the vote, and then re-elected again in 2004 with 55 percent of the vote. But today, according to that same Washington Poll, Murray has a 51 percent job approval rating—low enough to entice Republican Dino Rossi to get into the race to unseat her this week.

You can bet Rossi will be casting himself in this race as something like "the change we need," and arguing that Murray has become part of the problem in D.C. at a time when voters here (again, according to that Washington Poll) give Congress a lowly 30-percent approval rating.

Murray's supporters push back against the idea that Murray is vulnerable to this kind of challenge by pointing out that, whatever her fall in popularity, she still has the highest approval rating of any elected Democrat in the state. True enough. But that 51-percent approval rating alone is not nearly enough to insulate her against a Rossi challenge.

So what's her message?

What's going to be written on her equivalent of the "change we need" placard?

Right now, based on conversations with people close to her re-election effort, it's something like: "Look at my record. I've fought for you in D.C., with good results, and I'll keep fighting for you if you re-elect me."

Which is not bad, but also doesn't quite fit on a placard.

"Senator Murray is not worrying about any polls," spokesperson Alex Glass told me yesterday after that Washington Poll came out. "She’s going to be running on her record."

“She’s just like us," said Anne Martens, spokesperson for the state Democratic party's coordinated campaign. "She understands the middle class. She understands working families... I think the more people learn about Patty’s record the stronger her numbers are going to be.”

Indeed, it's a seriously impressive record, hitting all the appropriate Washington State liberal notes: supporter of small business, champion of health care reform (and even the failed public option), defender of veterans' interests. And true, there are plenty of people out there who might be swayed by more information about her accomplishments; that Washington Poll found Murray beating Rossi by just 44 to 40, with a 3.9 percent margin of error and 12 percent of respondents describing themselves as "undecided."

But the question remains: For those undecideds who are best won over by positive messaging (rather than negative hits on Rossi, of which there have been and will be plenty), what's the simple sales pitch?

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It doesn't seem to me that Murray's campaign has yet settled on a one-word, placard-fitting answer, but sifting through all the recent talking points my guess is that it ends up being something close to "Fighter."

Which is not at all unique in political messaging—what is at this point?—but does have a nice ring to it, straddling both the "change agent" and "successful incumbent" realms. It could work.