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'Senator in tennis shoes' running for her political life

By Jim Acosta and Bonney Kapp, CNN
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Political sleeplessness in Seattle
  • Democrat Sen. Patty Murray facing tough re-election bid in Washington
  • Murray's Republican opponent, Dino Rossi, has made federal spending his top issue
  • The close race could make for a long night for East Coast election-watchers

Seattle, Washington (CNN) -- She went to Congress 18 years ago as a self-described soccer mom and senator in tennis shoes. Now, Patty Murray is running for her political life. Her fate in deep blue Washington state could tip the balance of power in Washington, D.C.

In a brief speech aimed at firing up a Democratic call center outside Seattle, Murray dismissed the conventional wisdom that her party is suffering from an election "enthusiasm gap."

"I have four words for you: Come to Washington state," Murray told the crowd.

And unlike other Democrats, Murray isn't running away from the president or the White House message that it's the Republicans who wrecked the economy.

But in an interview, Murray conceded that her party is in trouble.

"People are hurting. Their house is underwater. They've lost their financial future. They've lost their pension. They're insecure about where the country is going. I understand that," Murray said.

Explore the Senate races

Murray, an unabashed champion of earmarked pet projects, has tailored her election message to reflect deep concerns in her state over the deficit.

"As Democrats, we are the fiscally responsible party," Murray told the call center crowd.

But Murray's Republican opponent, Dino Rossi, a twice-unsuccessful candidate for governor, has made federal spending his top issue. He points to Murray's votes for the bank bailout, the economic stimulus and health care reform.

Rossi also vows that he will never accept an earmarked pet project in office.

The deficit, Rossi says, "is the moral issue of this campaign, because what they are doing is morally reprehensible."

Rossi didn't specify where he would cut the budget. But he differed from other Tea Party-backed Republican candidates who have advocated closing whole departments of the federal government. Rossi maintains that he would not seek to privatize Social Security.

"You really have to go line by line by line. I've actually written budgets before. I've balanced budgets before. I know how this works," Rossi said.

On the airwaves, Rossi is getting help from special interest group ads attacking Murray's votes on spending. One spot run by the American Action Network shows a senator in sneakers stepping on the backs of voters, even kids.

But some voters appreciate Murray's efforts to "bring home the bacon." Her earmarks to help fund the state's beloved ferry system have earned Murray the nickname "ferry godmother."

"That's her job," ferry passenger Toni Lysen said.

The close race in this state could make for a long night for East Coast election-watchers. Just picture the newspaper headline now: "Sleepless over Seattle."