Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- Antiwar critics running against Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., lost one of their candidates this month when the Washington Democrat hired him to work in her campaign for $8,000 a month.

In a contest that was always one of the Republicans' better opportunities to beat an incumbent, the big story of the summer was Cantwell's decision to hire (and silence) anti-Iraq War candidate Mark Wilson, one of several war critics whose candidacies threatened her bid for a second term.

With polls showing Republican business executive Mike McGavick in a near dead-heat with the liberal lawmaker, as antiwar Democrats attacked her opposition to immediate troop withdrawal, GOP chances of taking her seat have improved significantly.

Cantwell's first response was to buy off her opposition, first with Wilson at the handsome annual rate of $96,000, and then by silencing yet another vocal antiwar critic and potential challenger, Dal LaMagna, by making him her campaign co-chairman.

Her second tactic, in an attempt to defuse a rebellion in her party, was to change her position on a troop pullout. In May her position was that this was a year in transition in Iraq. That evolved into a vote for some modest troop redeployment by year's end. Last week, campaign strategist Michael Meehan said she was now "for changing course" in Iraq. "We think troops should come home by the end of this year."

Her payoff tactics, however, created a furor in the state's newspapers, and the GOP's campaign machine went into overdrive ridiculing her cash offers to eliminate her opposition. "Cantwell campaign strategy: Going once, going twice ... sold!" blared a Republican campaign committee press release.

But yet another antiwar Democrat remains in the Democrats' Sept. 9 primary race. Hong Tran, an attorney who fled Vietnam with her family in the 1970s, said she, too, was asked to join Cantwell's campaign, which she took to mean a job offer. She declined.

Meanwhile, head-to-head polls show the race tightening considerably as McGavick, the former CEO of Safeco Insurance, spent the bulk of the $4.6 million he has raised thus far on TV ads to introduce himself to the voters and challenge Cantwell's liberal voting record.

A Rasmussen poll showed him trailing by 44 percent to 40 percent. A Republican Strategic Vision poll had Cantwell leading by three points.

A Seattle Post-Intelligencer headline on Cantwell's declining polls read, "Cantwell's lead over McGavick nearly gone."

In a telephone interview last week as he toured the state's rural towns in an RV, McGavick explained his rise in the polls.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.