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GOP Senate Race Begins to Percolate

With failed gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi mostly out of the picture, Republican Senate hopefuls are finally lining up in the Evergreen State to challenge freshman Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.).

At least three would-be Senate candidates are gauging support, crunching numbers and laying the groundwork for possible bids.

Officially, the state party and the National Republican Senatorial Committee are awaiting final

word from Rossi — whose near-miss in last year’s governor’s race amid controversy and allegations of fraud have made him a folk hero in GOP circles.

Rossi has said all along that he does not want to run for the Senate but has not made a statement about his lack of interest since a Washington judge threw out his lawsuit contesting the 2004 gubernatorial election results earlier this month.

“It’s still all about Dino — I know [NRSC Chairwoman] Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) has a trip planned out here soon and she wants to meet with Dino,” said Chris Vance, Washington state Republican Party chairman. “There are people who are interested in the Senate race but they are not going to announce r get started until then.”

Nonetheless, Safeco chief executive Mike McGavick, former Rep. Rick White and National Republican Committeewoman Diane Tebelius are all moving toward Senate bids.

“I’m evaluating to see what the support is out there among the base of the party; I found it to be very good,” Tebelius said in an interview Monday. “I’m looking at business leaders and so far I’ve gotten great response from that. I’m still continuing to look — obviously I want to make this sooner rather than later.”

But Tebelius, like McGavick and White, has not formed an exploratory committee, has not begun raising money and has not set a timeline for making a decision.

“It’s still incredibly early,” said Jim Keough, a Seattle-based political consultant who has worked for Rossi and White previously.

After Rossi, many national and state Republicans seem excited about McGavick.

McGavick turned around Safeco, a property and casualty insurer, and put it back in the black since taking the helm more than four years ago.

He is also a well-respected political veteran, having run the comeback campaign that returned Slate Gorton (R-Wash.) to the Senate in 1989. He then did a stint as Gorton’s chief of staff.

“He would be an outstanding candidate,” NRSC spokesman Brian Nick said of McGavick.

However, there are questions about whether McGavick is free to run or if he is bound by contract to stay on at Safeco. Even if he does make the race, it is not clear that White and Tebelius will back off.

McGavick is on vacation and could not be reached for comment Monday, according to a Safeco spokesman.

White had not returned a call before press time but he seems primed to run as he recently left his position as head of Technet, a high-tech trade association.

“Everybody’s talking, these are all fine men who are looking at the race,” Tebelius said about her possible rivals. “From my perspective it doesn’t really make a difference what they are going to do,” however, she added.

Keough said Rossi is the only candidate who definitely could clear the field and that after him, Republicans will be hard-pressed to avoid a primary.

Once Rossi says he is not running, White and McGavick will likely enter the fray, setting off a “mad dash for cash” between the two, Keough predicted.

If one is much more successful than the other at rounding up “early money,” than the man with less cash might “reconsider,” Keough said.

“Chances are we’ll probably have some sort of contested primary at this point,” he said.

Vance said he is working to avoid that scenario as Washington has a late September primary.

“My objective this cycle is the same as it was last cycle, which is to unite the party early behind one candidate,” he said.

Perhaps more will be known after Dole returns from Seattle.

Dole is headed West for a July 6 NRSC event that is being coordinated by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) as part of the NRSC’s regional fundraising program. Stevens is chairman of the Pacific Northwest region.

In addition to her expected meeting with Rossi, there is speculation that Dole will meet with other potential Senate contenders while she is in Washington.

“As far as we know, Rossi is keeping his options open and there are other candidates that are looking at the race as well,” Nick said.

National Republicans are high on their chances in Washington.

They believe lingering GOP resentment over the governor’s race combined with Cantwell’s status as a fairly low-profile freshman make it an ideal pick-up situation.

They also think Cantwell will have a tough time raising the necessary funds.

Cantwell bankrolled her 2000 upset over Gorton with wealth obtained through stocks of RealNetworks, her former employer.

When the high-tech sector tanked in 2000, she saw her personal wealth shrink considerably. She said she would not be able to finance another campaign herself and had to pay back loans she had personally guaranteed.

Despite all that, Cantwell paid off the loans and managed to bank almost $1.9 million as of March 31.

She also has been working hard to raise her profile back home and take a more prominent role in the Senate.

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