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In Washington state, the race for governor drags on -- and on

Opinions vary on votes' impact

OLYMPIA, Wash. -- The exhausting, exasperating, excruciatingly close Washington governor's race might be the worst thing to happen to democracy since Florida's pregnant chads.

Or, it might be no big deal.

The votes are in (for now) after being counted three times since Election Day. The courts have spoken (for now). Democrat Christine Gregoire won the final recount by a mere 130 votes out of 2.9 million cast, after losing the first two counts to Republican Dino Rossi by as little as 42.

Gregoire says it is over, but even those whose most fervent holiday wish was for a decided election do not really believe that. The Republicans are pushing hard for counties to reconsider ballots they believe were wrongly rejected.

The whole mess will probably head back to court, and it is not at all clear whether Washington will have a governor by inauguration day, Jan. 12.

So when the dust clears and the governor, whoever that may be, gets down to governing, will the controversy really make a difference?

The new governor ''will have difficulties in perceived legitimacy," said David Olson, a political science professor at the University of Washington. ''It will be very difficult to tackle big issues with a strong policy agenda. The mandate is not there."

On the other hand, he acknowledged, losing the popular vote in 2000 did not stop President Bush from pursuing his agenda.

''People do have short memories," said Lance LeLoup, a political science professor at Washington State University. ''The stuff that seems so unbelievable right now, that has people clutching their hearts and moaning that this is the end of life as we know it, a year down the line this will be a footnote in history."

If Gregoire does claim the governor's office, she will enjoy the benefit of a Democratic state House and Senate.

The only sure winner so far is election reform. Proposals for overhauling Washington's election system are going to be as common as umbrellas at the state Capitol this winter.

Secretary of State Sam Reed has suggested a package of changes, though he has said he believes the election went well, all things considered.

''We don't expect it to be perfect," Reed said. ''But we do have a system set up to correct those imperfections when they surface, and we have done that."

The two candidates predictably split over whether this election was free and fair.

''Like many people across Washington, I'm very concerned about the integrity of this election process, and I'm also very concerned that not all votes are being treated equally," Rossi said in an e-mailed statement Thursday.

He said Washington has neither a clean election nor a legitimate governor.

Gregoire, on the other hand, brimmed with confidence in Washington's electoral system after the results were announced Thursday night.

''I think we have been a model to the rest of the nation and to the world at large," she said. ''This is the biggest display of democracy I have ever seen, and I am proud of it."

Mindful of her microscopic margin of 0.0047 percent, Gregoire reached out to Rossi voters.

''A lot of heated words have been said during this recount," she said, ''but with the election coming to a close I am confident we can begin to move forward as one state."

Some Republicans have urged Rossi not to contest the election, if only so he can come back stronger in 2006 to challenge Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell or to run again for governor in 2008.

Many other Republicans, though, say they will not give up so easily.

''We have the right to contest and we have the reasons to contest it," said Javier Figueroa of University Place, a state parks employee and Rossi supporter. ''This isn't about being a nice guy. This is about ensuring the process is a good, solid process. It's important to both sides to have that right."

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