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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

An unconventional fight

One is nice, the other defiant. The maverick voters of Washington will choose between two mavericks

By Steve Lopez/Seattle

TIME magazine

(TIME, Nov. 2) -- Way out west, in the Washington with more salmon than lobbyists and more independents than either Democrats or Republicans, people do not like to be told what to do. It could be the pioneer spirit, or maybe they've got a complex about practically being squeezed off the map of the U.S. In any case, they could not have two more appropriate candidates going at each other in the U.S. Senate race, because neither one can be called conventional.

Mild-mannered mom and first-term incumbent Patty Murray, a Democrat, is the antithesis of the modern-day celebrity politician. She doesn't look like one, she doesn't talk like one, she doesn't even care to be one. "I didn't run to be a politician," she said last week after a labor rally in Spokane.

And flame-throwing challenger Linda Smith, a second-term Republican Congresswoman, has built a reputation for trashing money-grubbing colleagues whose spines drip into their shoes at the mere mention of campaign-finance reform. "When have I ever been obedient?" she was overheard asking an aide by telephone last week.

This is only the third time in history that two women have squared off in a general election for the U.S. Senate. But that subject barely surfaces in the daily yin and yang of the campaign. The more interesting story is that while Murray and Smith are both somewhat offbeat, they are polar opposites politically. And at a time in which President Clinton has broken the needle on the country's moral compass, we're about to find out whether one of the nation's largest groups of independent-minded voters goes for the moderate suburban mom who speaks softly or the religious-right grandma who carries a big stick.

Richard Young, an associate professor of political science at Seattle University, said Murray's moderation seems more in sync with the state's voters. "The alliance of Christians and Libertarian Republicans has taken over the party, and their candidates fall into the category of being extreme."

Polls have shown Murray ahead by as many as 13 points, but both camps say the gap has closed. And although Murray has more money, Smith's followers, whom she refers to as "Linda's army," are generally more rabid. Plus, she has a history of coming from behind. There's also the thorn-in-the-side-of-the-party factor, which in distant Washington State could work in her favor. Her D.C. colleagues can't stand her. "She's impossible to deal with. She's nuts. Totally bonkers," says a senior House Republican. That's probably because she won't join the boys on favored-nation status for China, or she once called Newt Gingrich a fat boy and voted against re-electing him Speaker in 1997, or, most likely, because she rails against special-interest money, which is like being in the Mafia and saying you've got a problem with the loan sharking. Whatever, the National Republican Senatorial Committee has withheld most of the $540,000 they could have given Smith, and news of this has angered people into sending money directly to her. It has also shamed Republican leaders into throwing Smith a $100,000 bone last week. Murray's camp immediately charged that Smith had violated her pledge to refuse special-interest money, but Smith countered that since she doesn't know which donors the money came from, she is beholden to no one.

Both 48, Murray and Smith raised families and then were drawn to politics for some of the same reasons, including an interest in families and education. There the similarities end, and they are definitely not using the same hairdresser. Murray, known as the mom in tennis shoes in 1992 when she won office in the year of the woman, could be in a Wheat Thins commercial or an Eddie Bauer catalog; Smith looks like she's just come from Talbots and is on her way to accept the Dry Cleaning Woman of the Year award.

Murray is pro-choice; Smith once voted against Medicaid funding for abortion in cases of rape and incest, explaining, "We don't kill children because their father is a jerk." Murray, a former instructor and school-board member, boasts about her role in last week's budget agreement and the planned hiring of 100,000 teachers to reduce class size; Smith, who once managed a tax-preparation business, accused Murray of raiding the Social Security trust fund and said she doesn't want bureaucrats or politicians in D.C. "wrapping my school district in red tape."

Murray has the backing of the biggest local industries because she's with them on China trade. But she doesn't have all business on her side. "I believe in smaller government, local control, less taxes and more personal freedoms," Steven O'Donnell, an investment-brokerage executive and Smith supporter, said after being thoroughly unimpressed by a Murray speech to the Bellevue Rotary Club. "I like somebody with a lot of fire." But at the labor rally in Spokane, Murray's next-door-neighbor style got a different response. She isn't slick and hasn't been corrupted by Washington, D.C., said Kay McGlocklin, who owns a sign-making company. "People like that about her. She's genuine, and she's effective in her own way."

The problem for each woman is that for now, her strength in Washington State is her weakness in Washington, D.C. Murray is playing softball in a game where they always throw at your head, and Smith's militant independence makes her an outcast in her own party. But to their credit, neither is going to change anytime soon.

--With reporting by James Carney/Washington

MORE TIME STORIES:

Cover Date: November 2, 1998

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