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GOP candidates embrace Obama's message of change

  • Story Highlights
  • Many GOP candidates embracing Obama message, de-emphasizing ties to McCain
  • GOP gubernatorial candidate in Washington calls for change
  • Republican senator in Oregon cites work with Obama in TV ad
  • GOP party leader admits it is hard to get voters to split ticket
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From Chris Lawrence
CNN's American Morning
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SEATTLE, Washington (CNN) -- A sign above Interstate 5 outside of Seattle, Washington, flashes, "Voting for Obama? We Need CHANGE in Olympia too. Vote Dino Rossi for Governor!"

That's Dino Rossi, Republican.

Rossi says an independent group that supports him put up the sign.

"They just realize we can't keep doing the same thing in Olympia [Washington's capital] and expect something new to happen." he said.

Rossi is running against incumbent Democrat Gov. Chris Gregoire in a rematch of 2004, the closest governor's race in U.S. history. Out of nearly 3 million votes, Gregoire won by a little more than 100.

Polls show the race is close again, and both sides are literally fighting street by street for every vote.

Chris Vance, the former head of Washington's Republican Party says, "This state is ready for change." And if it all sounds a lot like a certain senator from Illinois, that's no accident. Video Watch how Rossi is embracing a message of change »

Polls show Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama well ahead in the state of Washington, which hasn't elected a Republican governor since Ronald Reagan was president.

Rossi says some Democrats are supporting him "because we've got to have some change. It's been the same people [in Olympia] for so long."

At Rossi campaign headquarters, there are signs highlighting his support from police groups, veterans, even signs that say "Dinocrats" -- everything except the Republican's presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain.

Rossi says he supports McCain, but "we're very separate and distinct as well."

Gregoire points out that Rossi uses the abbreviation "GOP" on his signs instead of "Republican." Contrast that to her headquarters, where there's barely a square foot that doesn't emphasize the party ties between herself and Obama.

There are pictures of them together, an Obama "Hope" poster directly above one of Gregoire that reads "Progress."

"This is about a team," Gregoire says. "I have not had a teammate in Washington [D.C.] the last four years.

"There is nothing [she and Obama] cannot achieve working together."

Of Rossi: "This is a guy who's refused to identify that he's a Republican. He's tried to hide from the Republican Party and George Bush all the way along."

Washington isn't the only state where some Republicans are distancing themselves from the GOP brand and in some cases even trying to connect their names to Obama.

At the same time, the McCain campaign is trying to distance itself from President Bush, also a Republican.

After a highly-choreographed endorsement at the White House on March 5, Bush has attended four fundraisers for McCain, all of them closed to the media.

McCain has appeared in public with Bush only a couple of times: on May 27 after a fundraiser in Phoenix, Arizona, and on September 25 at a White House summit on the financial crisis.

McCain has even cut a television ad in which he admits to voters, "The last eight years haven't worked very well, have they? I'll make the next four better."

In Oregon, Republican Sen. Gordon Smith has invoked Obama's name in TV ads, touting the fact the two men worked together on issues like alternative energy and hate crimes. Smith has also publicly criticized McCain's team for recent automated robocalls that attempt to link Obama with domestic terrorist Bill Ayers.

Smith identified so strongly with Obama, that Obama taped his first TV ad for another candidate -- reiterating his support for Smith's opponent, Democrat Jeff Merkley.

Obama's Oregon campaign says, "It's important that Oregonians know who Barack is supporting."

In areas of the country where Obama is popular, some of the Republican campaigns will be counting on voters to split the ticket -- to vote for Obama for president and then vote for the local Republican candidates.

Jessica Burnham is a working mom with two kids who lives outside Seattle. Burnham has two bumper stickers on the back of her car: Barack Obama and Dino Rossi.

"I don't like the way things are now," said Burnham, a first-time voter and part of a new wave of young people who don't feel loyalty to any one political party.

"It doesn't matter if you're Democrat or Republican, you're voting for who you think's going to make a difference -- and those are the two people who are -- period," she said.

That's not a typical voter pattern and that makes things hard for Republicans in Washington.

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"It is hard to run against the top of your ticket," Vance said. "It is hard to get tens of thousands -- hundreds of thousands of people -- to go Democrat-Democrat-Republican"

Rossi can win if McCain keeps it close, Vance said. "But if it gets out of hand, if McCain loses by 15 or 20 points -- very hard to overcome."

CNN's Elaine Quijano contributed to this report.

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