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.

"Two things are going on here," he said. "One, we're getting better known and people know what my message is and that's building support as we go along. On the other side of the equation, Cantwell continues to face a barrage of aggressive questions from Democrats on her support for the war. That is having the effect of pulling her support down."

McGavick says two overriding issues are driving his campaign and striking a responsive chord in the electorate.

"One is to promote a civil campaign that says this rank partisanship and mean-spiritedness has to stop. We continue to find that this resonates with voters," he said.

"The other is immigration. The senator and I couldn't disagree more on securing our southern borders and the idea that we should end Social Security benefits to those working here illegally.

"Immigration is the one issue voters ask about most and that has the most intensity. More intensity than the war in Iraq," he said.

He acknowledges that "the war is less popular in our state than in other states and there's more people supporting an immediate pullout.

"But I find that if you get in front of audiences and have an open mind and reflect on the reality that we can't just leave them to a civil war in Iraq and that it would be riskier to our troops to have a timetable, that you can pull people over to a more patient approach," he said.

McGavick is making his first run for public office, but he's no neophyte when it comes to the workings of the Senate. He was a chief aide to Sen. Slade Gorton, whom Cantwell defeated in 2000 with 48.7 percent of the vote

He knows it could be an equally tight contest this time around, too. But he also knows that Cantwell's political albatross is her party's antiwar left and pointedly says, "Remember, there will be probably four of us on the ballot" in November. The other two will be third-party candidates running against the war and that means taking votes away from Cantwell.

That sets up the kind of scenario that the senator was attempting to buy off earlier this month. But the Green Party and Libertarian Party candidates can't be bought, and many voters who want us out of Iraq will likely vote for them to "send a message."

That may be just enough votes in a close election to make Mike McGavick the next senator from Washington.


Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.