Tied with Jay Inslee in latest poll, Rob McKenna steps with caution around presidential race

  • Wed Feb 29th, 2012 8:13pm
  • News

Republican Rob McKenna’s ever-so-smooth ride into the governor’s mansion has hit a rough patch of late.

First, there are signs Democrats realize Jay Inslee will be their party’s nominee and are no longer dreaming of or hoping for others to enter the race.

Public Policy Polling provided a measure of this in mid-February as part of a statewide survey that found the race a dead-heat between the two major party candidates.

In the survey, 81 percent of those describing themselves as Democrats backed Inslee. McKenna had the same 81 percent support among Republicans.

Though it doesn’t seem surprising, the figure is one of the congressman’s best showings among his political clan since entering the race. With the party faithful on board, Inslee can turn his attention to winning over those voters in whose hands the 2012 race may very well be decided: the self-described independents.

Just as Democrats needed time to embrace Inslee as governor material, independents will, too.

The same poll found McKenna enjoys a 12-point advantage on Inslee among independent voters. It may not be that close right now; an Elway Poll released days before the Public Policy survey found McKenna doing better than Inslee among independent voters by a 2-1 margin.

One explanation is they know McKenna because he’s run statewide twice. Such familiarity breeds contentment.

Voters will gain a deeper education about the candidates in the campaign, which leads to a second rough patch encountered by McKenna’s campaign this week.

His decision to not publicly endorse nor caucus this Saturday for any of the four Republican presidential hopefuls has created something of a stir.

Through a stated policy of noninterference, McKenna is seeking Switzerlandlike neutrality in the party’s raging primary. He’s made himself scarce as, one-by-one, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich campaigned in the state.

However, he will be at Mitt Romney’s fundraiser today in Bellevue. Romney supporters invited McKenna to the event, according to a McKenna campaign official.

Candidates commonly avoid endorsing in elections other than their own, especially if there is a contested primary. However, McKenna did take sides in the last presidential campaign when he backed John McCain before the Arizona senator wrapped up the nomination.

In politics, saying you won’t do something after you have done it is a flip-flop and Democrats are relishing the opportunity to rub it in.

It’s not like McKenna doesn’t have a favorite; he does but he won’t reveal it. There’s logic to his silence. This protracted primary battle and the race for president poses more risk than benefit to his chances.

Whoever Republicans put up against President Barack Obama is unlikely to win in Washington, which means McKenna must outperform the person at the top of the GOP ticket, maybe by a lot.

Dino Rossi did it in 2004 and 2008 and still it was not enough. McKenna, as a candidate for attorney general, did it in 2004 and 2008 as well and both times he came close to capturing more total votes than the Democratic presidential candidate.

In 2012, what the two gubernatorial campaigns know is the more knitted McKenna becomes to the GOP presidential candidate, the greater the threat of independent voters peeling off.

Surveys show those middle-of-the-road voters in Washington favor Obama to any of the quartet. McKenna’s fortune hinges on carving his own identity as a Republican candidate with those voters.

Hence, expect him to pursue a strategy of mutual noninterference through the general election. He may share a stage with the presidential nominee at some point. But his message almost has to be along the lines of “You do your thing; I’ll do mine and let’s try not to do too much together.”

The attorney general’s been driving toward this goal for too many years to allow even a fellow Republican knock him off track.

Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at www.heraldnet.com. Contact him at 360-352-8623 or jcornfield@heraldnet.com.