WASHINGTON -- Though they are both running against Washington, D.C., and the political establishment, Dino Rossi and Clint Didier have been in the nation's capital seeking support and campaign cash.
The two Republican Senate candidates from Washington state are wooing different D.C. networks.
Rossi is taking the more traditional route, heavy on meetings with the National Republican Senatorial Committee; its chairman, Texas Sen. John Cornyn, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Republican senators have thrown one fundraiser for him and he's expected to receive support from a group formed by Bush political adviser Karl Rove and backed by corporate contributors.
Didier has met with tea party favorite Ron Paul, and a former Washington Redskins teammate — bad boy John Riggins — threw a fundraiser for him. He has talked with GOP chairman Michael Steele and met with conservative groups ranging from the Eagle Forum to the Family Research Council and the National Right to Life to Americans for Tax Reform.
A Senate race that wasn't even on the national radar screen a few months ago has suddenly become one of the hottest in the nation. If Republicans have a chance of picking up the nine seats they need to gain control of the Senate, it could come down to contests in Washington state, California and Wisconsin.
Rossi's entry into the race turned the Washington state Senate contest into one being closely watched. Rossi, who ran twice unsuccessfully for governor and was urged to run for the Senate by national Republican leaders, is expected to give incumbent Democratic Sen. Patty Murray a tough race.
Murray has faced strong candidates before and won. But she seeks her fourth term amid a rising Republican tide and growing frustration and anger with Congress and the White House.
Yet Rossi may not have the clear shot at Murray that he's been expecting. That's because Didier's campaign has started to gain some traction, bolstered by the wins of Republican outsiders in primaries in Nevada and Kentucky, the decision of the incumbent Republican governor in Florida to run for re-election as an independent because of a strong conservative challenger and the ouster of a Republican senator in Utah by conservative GOP forces.
Though his poll numbers are routinely in the single digits, an endorsement from Sarah Palin and a well-received appearance at the state Republican convention has given the Didier campaign some buzz. A Rasmussen Reports telephone poll released Friday showed Didier with surprising strength should he make it to the general election, trailing Murray 48 percent to 40 percent. Rossi was tied with Murray at 47-47.
"Rossi is the establishment candidate," said Stuart Rothenberg, a well-respected national political analyst. "He has to be aware Didier is in the race. He has to run a race. He can't take anything for granted."
Jennifer Cook, who analyzes Senate races for the Cook Report, agreed.
"I don't think you can ignore anyone with Tea Party backing," she said.
Even so, both Rothenberg and Duffy said Rossi's biggest advantage and Didier's biggest problem is a primary system in which the top two candidates, regardless of their party affiliation, advance to the general election.
"It's a jungle primary," Duffy said. "Didier doesn't get Rossi one on one. The rules work against Didier."
So far, Rossi is pretty much ignoring Didier and cranking out almost daily news releases attacking Murray.
Asked whether Rossi was paying attention to the Didier campaign, Jennifer Morris, a Rossi spokeswoman who joined the campaign after serving as a spokeswoman for Senate GOP leader McConnell, said, "Dino is focused on Washington state families, improving the economy and bringing jobs back to Washington state. Murray has an 18-year record, and as a member of leadership she has a lot to answer for."
Katherine Serkes, a Didier adviser, said Rossi is vulnerable.
"He is trying to assume the mantle of front-runner as an anointed position," Serkes said. "This is not the year a candidate with party support can be comfortable."
During one of his two trips to Washington, D.C., Didier met with the political director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, but not to ask for money, Serkes said.
"Clint wanted to let them know this is a race," she said. "They assured Clint they would stand on the sidelines through the primary. We were glad to hear them affirm their official position."
Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the GOP campaign committee, said the group will not endorse in the primary, but he acknowledged it had encouraged Rossi to run.
"This could be a pivotal race on the national landscape," Walsh said.
The GOP campaign committee has already set up a website attacking Murray. Their Democratic counterpart, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, set up a website attacking Rossi even before he entered the race.
The Democrats are also doing what they can to promote the Didier storyline and give Rossi heartburn.
Murray isn't sitting on the sidelines waiting to see if Didier distracts Rossi.
"I have never had an election where pundits didn't say, 'This is her toughest race ever,' " Murray said in an interview. "I'm fine with that."
But Duffy said she thought the Murray campaign seemed anxious.
"Rossi is the strongest candidate she has faced," Duffy said. "He is known statewide, he can raise money and he is not from the Eastside. I think they (the Murray campaign) look nervous. They are ramping up early. It's for a good reason."
Duffy now rates the Washington Senate race a tossup.
Rothenberg still thinks Murray has the upper hand -- but it's close.
"We still have the race leaning Democratic," he said. "We think she will win. She is always underestimated because of her style. Washington state is still hard for Republicans. But it's a bad cycle for Democrats and it's a good year to be a Republican."
* Les Blumenthal: 202-383-0008; email@example.com