Gov. Christine Gregoire and challenger Dino Rossi clashed in their final debate tonight over who was best prepared to solve the state's looming budget shortfall and whose camp was to blame for the increasingly nasty tone of campaign ads in their expensive and tightly fought race.

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Gov. Christine Gregoire and challenger Dino Rossi clashed in their final debate last night over who is best prepared to solve the state’s looming budget shortfall and whose camp is reponsible for the increasingly nasty tone of campaign ads in their expensive and tightly fought race.

In a debate that saw little new ground broken, Gregoire, the Democrat and Rossi, the Republican, each refused to back away from their own supporters’ attack ads while accusing the other side of dishonest mudslinging.

“I am chagrined at these negative ads, multimillion-dollar dishonest negative attacks,” said Gregoire. She claimed the campaign hit its “low point” last week when a Republican group mailed mugshots of child rapists to thousands of homes and suggested the state had lost track of hundreds of sex offenders.

“That is shameful. Ask any police chief or sheriff or prosecutor. They are disgusted by those ads,” said Gregoire.

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Rossi, meanwhile, said Gregoire’s supporters were misleading voters by saying he planned to lower the state minimum wage by $1.50 across the board. Rossi said he would consider only a lower training wage for teenagers and would not lower it for “any adult.”

Turning to confront Gregoire directly at one point, Rossi said such “false attacks” were “not only demeaning to you … they’re also demeaning to the office we both seek.”

They continued to fight over the state’s projected $3.2 billion budget deficit — with Rossi blaming Gregoire’s spending for creating the problem and Gregoire accusing Rossi of failing to level with voters on what services he’d cut to close the gap.

Gregoire pointed out that Rossi had continually refused to offer specifics on how he’d close the budget gap, and said his transportation proposals would only make the deficit worse by siphoning money away from the general fund to pay for roads.

Rossi repeated his earlier arguments that he’d bring in new eyes from the business world to examine the state budget, but he again offered no new details on how he’d solve the budget gap.

Both candidates danced around a question on whether they’d consider suspending teacher pay raises, which are expected to cost $1 billion over the next two years, to fill the budget gap. Gregoire said at one point she wished she could have spent even more money on education in her recent budgets, while Rossi said he wanted to reward the best teachers.

Polling has shown the race to be virtually even, foreshadowing a possible rerun of the 2004 election, which Rossi lost by 133 votes after two recounts and a lawsuit.

In the past few weeks, the campaign has grown increasingly negative with attack ads from the campaigns and independent groups dominating the airwaves.

The onslaught of attack ads is likely to grow in the coming weeks; both sides have millions of dollars left to spend. Already, more than $39 million has been raised for the race.

Rossi and his supporters could have a decided money edge in the final days — with four times as much cash in the bank as Gregoire and her backers, according to financial disclosures filed this week.

Rossi and independent groups supporting him have about $8 million left, compared with about $1.8 million for Gregoire’s side.

The bulk of Rossi’s money comes from the Republican Governors Association and a political committee called It’s Time for A Change, which is mainly funded by the Building Industry Association of Washington (BIAW).

Democrats have accused the BIAW of illegal fundraising, and two former state Supreme Court justices have filed a lawsuit to stop the group from spending its money.

Wednesday night’s debate was broadcast live from KING-TV studios in Seattle. It was sponsored by KING, The Seattle Times and public radio’s Northwest News Network.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or

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