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Gambling on a Talk-Show Host

Washington state Democratic Party Chairman Paul Berendt does not regret his decision to throw over a three-time loser or a wealthy high-tech executive for an untested talk-show host in his efforts to win the open 8th district seat.

“That upset them; I’m not going to pretend they were all happy about this,” Berendt admitted in an interview last week. “My job as chairman is to make sure we win these elections.”

Berendt was talking about his decision in May to woo popular Seattle radio talk-show host Dave Ross into the race despite the presence of Heidi Behrens-Benedict, the party’s unsuccessful 1998, 2000 and 2002 nominee, and former RealNetworks chief Alex Alben, who is a millionaire.

Some Democratic interest groups now question the wisdom of that strategy, and many have cast their lot with Alben. A leading abortion-rights group in the state says Ross is not strong enough on the issue.

Alben was the lone challenger in the race when both parties thought Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R) was seeking re-election. But when she made her surprise retirement announcement in January, she threw off everyone’s calculations for the competitive suburban Seattle district, pols in both parties agree.

Initially, Democrats in both Washingtons thought they were sitting pretty with Alben, as Republicans tripped over each other to jump into the race.

But then popular King County Sheriff Dave Reichert announced that he was a Republican and that he would seek the House seat.

Berendt said that made him think that he needed to match high name recognition with high name recognition and seek out Ross.

“I just believed we needed someone with greater heft,” Berendt said.

But instead of grousing about the decision, Behrens-Benedict and Alben both seem determined to use the contested Sept. 14 primary as a springboard to prove their popularity and grassroots might.

“Would you like to be a sole candidate? Of course,” Alben said. “But you have to rise to the occasion. [Ross] has energized the race” and brought lots of media attention to it, he said.

“I got into this race to win and I got in it to win against an incumbent,” Alben continued, adding that a win over Ross and Behrens-Benedict in the primary will only make him stronger for what is sure to be a very competitive general election.

To date, Alben by far has raised the most money — about $732,000, according to his campaign. His opponents like to point out that $300,000 of that is his own and that he should be doing better for someone who has been running since September.

“Dave Ross’ largest contributors are the men and women of the Boeing Aerospace Machinists,” said Ross campaign manager Marco Lowe. “Alex Alben’s largest contributor is Alex Alben.”

Nonetheless, Alben spokesman Ben Vaught said Alben donations have not fallen off since Ross entered the race in May.

“There’s a noticeable lack of excitement in the donor community for Dave Ross,” Vaught said. “We’ve raised more than he has since he’s been in the race.”

That is a fact — Alben will report in today’s Federal Election Commission filing having raised about $272,000 in the second quarter, $100,000 of which came from his pocket, according to his campaign. Ross is expected to report raising about $74,000.

Lowe points out, however, that Ross has been fundraising for only a month and that he was still doing his show, four days a week, three hours a day, during that time.

“We had phenomenal response to the one direct mailing we did,” Lowe said.

And while Ross will not actually file his candidacy until the end of the month, he is a household name who could “afford” to wait, Lowe said.

A poll conducted in June by Survey USA on behalf of KING-TV in Seattle bears that out.

Ross led the pack with 45 percent of Democratic voters saying they preferred him compared to 25 percent who backed Behrens-Benedict and 8 percent who favored Alben.

“If early name recognition meant everything, then we’d have presidential nominee Joe Lieberman,” Vaught said, referring to the one-time presidential candidate and Democratic Senator from Connecticut. “Alex is building the right kind of name recognition to win this race. If name recognition was everything, why not just run Britney Spears for Congress?”

Jay Freni, spokesman for Behrens-Benedict, said the interior designer is excited about her chances this time around.

“When no one else would stand up against Dunn she ran and ran and ran,” Freni said. “She figured this is her shot; she isn’t discouraged.”

Behrens-Benedict and Alben both hope that as Democratic voters get to know Ross better as a candidate, they will be less than impressed.

Alben landed the first jab, to that end, by questioning Ross’ convictions on the issue of abortion rights.

“Planned Parenthood has endorsed Alben — we’re the strongest on choice,” Vaught said. “It’s a priority for primary and general election voters.”

Ross’ camp says their man supports abortion rights, but at a candidate forum he expressed support for parental consent laws.

“We’re certainly concerned that he returned a questionnaire that wasn’t 100 percent pro-choice,” said Blythe Chandler, spokeswoman for NARAL Pro-Choice Washington.

“Choice is going to be a huge factor, it could be the defining factor” in the primary, Freni said.

Berendt and Ross both disagree with that assessment.

“He’s essentially pro-choice,” Berendt said of his hand-picked candidate. “Voters in the district are pro-choice, but people are extremely angry about other issues.”

Ross’ spokesman said Alben is using the issue as a way to gain traction.

“One candidate at 8 percent is grasping for one issue to use,” Lowe said.

On the endorsement front, Alben has locked up many of the key Democratic groups.

The Washington State Labor Council, Planned Parenthood, Washington Women for Choice and the National Education Association, among others, are backing Alben.

He also has five of the state’s six Democratic Congressmen on his side.

All three Democrats say they will whole-heartedly endorse the eventual nominee.

“The candidates and party will unite because of this unique opportunity,” Alben said.

Berendt admits he took a gamble, which he does not regret, and pledges to do everything in his power to make sure the Democratic primary winner is sent to Washington, D.C., after Election Day.

“If I had just let this go and [the Republican] won 55-45 percent, I would have been held accountable for this,” Berendt said. “I think [Ross’s entry] has fired up all the campaigns.”