The race squares incumbent Gregoire against Rossi in a rematch of the controversial 2004 race that was decided after two recounts and by a mere 133 votes.
“This is going to be a turnout election,” said Republican strategist Randy Pepple on KCTS, the public TV station in Seattle. “When it’s this close, whoever does a better job of getting their supporters to the polls and whoever has the momentum the last week for the undecided voters, that’s the one that wins.”
In the presidential race, Washington remains a strong Democratic state, which could help Gregoire.
“This race has yet to actually show any trends. It’s still a matter of: one week Dino’s ahead, the next week, obviously, the governor moves ahead,” said Democratic strategist Cathy Allen on KCTS. “What is the role of the national financial crisis and more importantly, how is the Obama-McCain movement going to affect our own race here?”
On Saturday, Gregoire and Rossi met for the first time since the 2004 election to hammer out their stances and at each other.
The candidates largely focused on the state’s weak economic health, with Rossi placing the blame squarely on Gregoire, who in turn placed the blame squarely back on Rossi, a former state senator and chairman of the Ways & Means Committee who helped draft the state’s budget, and on the Bush administration.
“No place in America has escaped the failed economic policies of the George W. Bush administration policies that my opponent has supported,” Gregoire said.
Rossi used the state’s climbing unemployment rate — currently at 6 percent, the highest level in nearly four years — and the growing budge deficit — projected to be about $3.2 billion — as examples of Gregoire’s poor leadership.
“It’s not a revenue problem, it’s a spending problem,” Rossi said.
They also debated, often heatedly, other issues: transportation woes, taxes, the environment and education — all topics agreed to beforehand.
While it is hard to imagine a repeat of 2004’s historically razor-thin margin of victory, recent polls suggest another long night of watching election results on Nov. 4.
In two polls released a little more than a week before Saturday’s debate, Rossi had the lead in both. In a SurveyUSA poll, he led, 48 percent to 47 percent, albeit within the margin of error; in a Rasmussen poll, he led, 52 percent to 46 percent. And in the primary election last month, Gregoire finished less than 2 points ahead of Rossi.
Some attributed Rossi’s bounce in the polls to the momentum built from the Republican National Convention and the excitement generated from Sen. John McCain naming Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, but Rossi remains ahead in some polls and is even in others.
The second of their six debates will be on Sept. 25.