Republican Dino Rossi came armed with a quiver full of zingers Thursday as he embarked on his campaign to dethrone Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire, setting the...

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Republican Dino Rossi came armed with a quiver full of zingers Thursday as he embarked on his campaign to dethrone Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire, setting the tone for what promises to be a long and bruising rematch.

Rossi said he’s been holding off being too critical of Gregoire since losing to her by 133 votes in 2004 — the closest governor’s race ever. But during his kickoff speech, Rossi lambasted Gregoire’s record as governor.

He said Gregoire has “spent and spent and spent” and set the state on course for a huge budget crisis in a few years. He said she has failed to make traffic congestion a top priority and done little more than study major education problems. He said she has become a master at blaming others for things that go wrong but claiming credit when things go right.

“Nothing will change in Olympia if we keep the same old crowd in charge,” he said. “They have had their turn.”

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Gregoire gave a reverse-Reaganesque response to Rossi’s attacks.

“All we have to do is ask ourselves, are we better off today as a state than we were three years ago,” she told reporters after an event in Olympia. “You bet we are. I’m not willing to go back to the old days.”

The overarching theme of Rossi’s hourlong speech was retreaded from his 2004 campaign — that Gregoire has become too entrenched as an Olympia insider.

Rossi, 48, pointed out that Gregoire has been in state government for 38 years: “She started when I was in fourth grade.” Along the way, he said, Gregoire has lost touch with regular citizens and taxpayers.

Over and over, Rossi referred to Gregoire as the “governor for the government.”

Rossi’s speech drew plenty of hoots and ovations from the hundreds of supporters who packed the Village Theatre in Issaquah to hear him pronounce, “I’m in the race.”

Afterward, state Republican Party Chairman Luke Esser was beaming. “It’s going to be a great, great year,” said Esser, who for months has been publicly pleading with Rossi to run.

Rossi, a former state senator and budget writer, used a lot of numbers to show Washington is on the wrong track.

He pointed out that, under Gregoire, state spending has increased more than 30 percent and more than 6,000 people have been added to the state payroll. He said the state “has no idea where more than 1,300 sex offenders are,” referring to offenders who have failed to register with the state. He pointed out that two-thirds of the state’s 10th-graders fail to pass all portions of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning.

But there are other numbers that don’t bode well for Rossi, including:

• 4.8 percent: Washington’s unemployment rate last month, a slight increase from the historic low rate set last spring.

• Fifth: Where Forbes Magazine recently ranked Washington on its list of “best states for business.”

• $1.5 billion: The state’s latest projected budget surplus for next year.

• $3 million: The amount of money Gregoire has raised already for her 2008 campaign.

• 27: The number of years since Washington voters elected a Republican governor.

Obviously aware of what he’s up against, Rossi made sure to pluck a lot of populist chords.

“The big unions, the big trial lawyers and the biggest businesses — they like things just the way they are,” he said.

“They are going to come at us hard,” he warned the crowd.

“Defy the naysayers.”

Before the speech, some Rossi supporters rehashed the 2004 election. After he won the initial two ballot counts, Gregoire pulled ahead on a third recount and then won a court challenge.

The pain from that defeat will motivate a lot of Rossi supporters, said Dorothy Bosland, a retiree from Redmond.

“People have a strong sense of fair play and if they think someone has been cheated, it brings out their fighting spirit,” she said.

Rossi told the crowd it will do no good to keep “looking in the rearview mirror,” but it’s clear he aims to tap the frustration from that election.

“We are going to finish what we started, aren’t we?” he said.

Gregoire has not formally announced she is running. But she said she had always expected Rossi to run again in 2008 and said she was not surprised he went on the attack so quick.

“It’s been a negative campaign for a long time,” she said. “The [Republican] party has been attacking me from the day I took office. So nothing has changed.”

The Gregoire-Rossi rematch is going to be a slugfest.

Rossi said his campaign strategy will be to “compare and contrast,” which is a nice way of saying he’s going to criticize Gregoire at every turn.

Paul Berendt, former chairman of the state Democratic Party, said he was frustrated in 2004 that the Gregoire campaign did not respond aggressively to Rossi.

“I don’t think it’s a mistake that they are going to make again,” Berendt said.

Seattle Times reporter Andrew Garber contributed to this story.

Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882


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