OLYMPIA — The race for the White House is already heating up nationally, with candidates off and running in the first wide-open contest in 80 years.
But here? Not so much.
Party leaders and political operatives say both the Republicans and Democrats have a strong Top 3 here and some eager-beaver backups, but that the campaigns still have little organization on the ground and that activists are hanging back before committing to a particular candidate.
It's early for the casual voter to pay much attention, but the nominees of both parties could be known by this time next year, possibly before Washington's oddball hybrid of primary and caucuses.
"This is nuts," said pollster Stuart Elway, chuckling over the warp speed of the 2008 cycle. "We've got this rich stew of candidates, but they're going to front-load it and it'll all be over by Christmas."
Republican strategist Dave Mortenson said the political junkies among us are already watching the sparring in the early states and assessing the field.
"It's starting up already, being driven by the national media and coverage by the 24-hour stations," he says. "I guess we have to learn to live with two-year campaigns. I'm wondering if there won't be a fatigue factor."
Secretary of State Sam Reed, the state's chief elections officer, said the White House race is bound to generate sky-high interest, given the Iraq war and the sense of renewal in both parties. It's the first wide-open race in 80 years with neither the president nor vice president seeking nomination.
The top tier candidates, all well-known national figures with a shot at their respective party nominations, have traveled here, some repeatedly, to campaign and raise money for themselves, their party's candidates, or both.
Democratic Chairman Dwight Pelz and his new Republican counterpart, Luke Esser, said the campaigns will ramp up here in two or three months and activists will begin taking sides.
Testing the Waters
Party leaders, legislators, campaign experts, and independent analysts said neither party has a clear front-runner here.
Washington, with its reputation for independence, is likely to be a battleground, even though the state hasn't given its electoral votes to a Republican ticket since 1984. The state has the second largest convention delegations in the West, after California.
Democrats' current Top 3 all have made a big impact here already:
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has campaigned here for herself, her husband, the former president, and Democratic candidates such as Sen. Patty Murray. She has many friends in the state's powerful women's movement and among the monied set.
Sen. Barack Obama was the star-power for the state's biggest, jazziest Democratic rally of 2006, in Bellevue, and sold box-loads of his latest book. As potentially the country's first B lack president, he is generating buzz in the Legislature and around the state. He's the "It" guy right now, but presidential politics can change on a dime or a primal scream in Iowa, said consultant Terry Thompson.
Former Sen. John Edwards has some strong residual support from 2004, when he was the vice presidential nominee and the state went for the Kerry-Edwards ticket. He's strong among labor and social progressives who like his emphasis on combating poverty.
Other Democrats, including Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico may move up, too, as the campaign rolls along, Pelz said.
Gov. Chris Gregoire likes many of the hopefuls and isn't taking sides yet, Spokeswoman Holly Armstrong said.
Pelz hasn't endorsed yet. House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, and former Democratic Chairman Paul Berendt like Edwards. A number of state lawmakers say they're intrigued with Obama, and U.S. Rep. Adam Smith has signed up.
The Republicans, meanwhile, also have big field without a clear front-runner nationally or here:
Sen. John McCain of Arizona is best organized, with vestiges of his 2000 campaign. Former Secretary of State Ralph Munro and other longtime friends are backing the senator, who did very well against George W. Bush in the balloting here. McCain campaigned for Senate hopeful Mike McGavick last year and is giving a speech in Seattle on Friday.
Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Guiliani, who made his mark in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, has a following here. House Republican Leader Richard DeBolt and others are backing him.
Former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts also has considerable buzz here, particularly among social conservatives.
Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee are among a second tier of GOP candidates.
"I certainly sense that no candidate has really been able to capture a significant level of support yet," Esser said. "It's clear that the McCain campaign has the most active organization and that will put pressure on the other campaigns. I just don't think much of that has jelled yet. They'll all be scrutinized, and that's healthy."
He said a recent Lincoln Day dinner in Clark County included a straw poll that showed Guiliani first, followed by Romney and McCain.
The party's 2004 gubernatorial nominee, Dino Rossi, said he's hoping the state is strongly competitive next year. Last time, he noted, he had to run well ahead of the Bush-Cheney ticket to have a shot at winning and the national campaign eventually conceded the state and moved resources elsewhere.
In a statewide poll in early November, pollsters Strategic Vision showed Clinton as the favorite of 32 percent of the Democratic respondents, compared with Al Gore at 23 percent, Edwards with 10 percent, Sen. Russ Feingold at 7 and Obama at 6. Guiliani led the GOP field with 42 percent, with McCain at 23 and Romney at 7.
Getting a Date
As the states try to leapfrog earlier on the political calendar, Washington hopes to be heard from before the nominations are clinched, said Reed and the party chairmen.
The state has a hybrid process — a New Hampshire-style primary and Iowa-style caucuses. Both are designed to give candidates a proportionate share of Washington's national convention delegates. As a practical matter, the Democrats, who used only the caucuses to allocate delegates, ignore the primary results. Republicans use both systems.
As it stands, the caucuses are March 11 of next year, but the parties may choose an earlier date. The default date for the primary is the fourth Tuesday in May, but Reed said he expects to consult with the campaigns and the parties and move the date forward to February, possibly in conjunction with California.
"I'm concerned that with all the front-loading, it will be over by Feb. 5," Reed said. "That would be very unhealthy for the process."