Funny thing happened on the way to the Democratic headquarters in this small town tucked into the undulating hills of the Palouse. Had the wrong address...

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PULLMAN — Funny thing happened on the way to the Democratic headquarters in this small town tucked into the undulating hills of the Palouse.

Had the wrong address when I entered The Barber Shop on East Main Street, and proprietor Dave Cuellar lent me his phone book. While I waited for the ring, I asked if he thought a Democrat could oust Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris from her 5th Congressional District seat.

“I don’t want another Democrat elected from here ever again,” Cuellar said, bemused. His draped customer piped in: “We ran them all out of town.”

This is, after all, the district that in the 1994 Republican revolution ousted former Speaker of the House Tom Foley. Since then elected Democrats in Eastern Washington have become almost as rare as August rain in Ritzville.

A few minutes later and a couple blocks away, I opened the door to the Democrats’ storefront when someone idling at the stoplight hollered, “You don’t want to go in there.”

Ominous, I’d say, for Peter Goldmark, the Democrat who is mounting a feisty, if underfunded, challenge to McMorris. Inside, Goldmark was giving a radio interview.

It was a stop on his eight-day Amber Waves tour through the freshly crew-cut wheat fields in a district that reaches from his cattle and wheat ranch in the Okanogan Highlands to the Walla Walla Valley.

Goldmark told radio listeners his opponent voted 89 percent with President Bush and 98 percent with Republican Tom DeLay, the indicted former House majority leader.

Make no mistake. Goldmark is running as much against Bush as he is against McMorris, a likable former state lawmaker who handily won the open seat two years ago against an amply qualified Democratic businessman.

Goldmark, the rancher who fuels his extended-cab Dodge 4X4 with biodiesel, is another credible candidate. He has a Ph.D. in molecular biology and is a former director of the state Department of Agriculture. His roots run deep in the state, although his family’s public service has come with a cost. His late father was a state lawmaker who, in the 1960s, won a celebrated libel case against a tiny Tonasket newspaper that accused him of being a communist. The family name was news again in 1985 when his brother and family tragically were murdered in Seattle.

As Goldmark and I stepped across the street for iced tea, I recounted the anti-Democratic heckling and the candidate smiled. He’s a Democrat, he says, because Democrats look out for the little guy — and the Republicans haven’t been looking out for the people he knows.

Goldmark ticks off his beefs.

The former regent for Washington State University is peeved McMorris, who represents a district with two public universities, four private colleges and several community colleges, voted to reduce funding for federal student loans. The former Okanogan School Board member laments reduced funding for the “No Child Left Behind” standards.

Among Goldmark’s larger motivations is the utterly conservative value of wanting to reduce the deficit run up by the irrational confluence of tax cuts and the costly Iraq war.

“There’s no excuse for not funding these domestic programs while fully funding the war,” he says. “The needs of our country are more important than the needs of Iraq.”

Still, he and McMorris each talk about getting out of Iraq in similar language — both eschew a date certain and want benchmarks to wean Iraq from reliance on U.S. troops.

Even in the most Republican reaches of Washington, the challenger’s message might be resonating in a year where a much-predicted anti-GOP tide might change Congress.

Congressional Quarterly recently edged the 5th District race’s status from “Safe Republican” to “Republican Favored,” though that is still two clicks to the right of neutral on a seven-level scale. In the politically bluer Puget Sound area, fellow freshman Republican, Rep. Dave Reichert of Auburn, might be more at risk in the 8th District, rated “Leans Republican.”

While Reichert’s opponent Darcy Burner is getting financial help from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Goldmark is not. Without its support, Goldmark has raised about $500,000 as of Aug. 31 — less than half of McMorris’ $1.1 million war chest.

The tide that threatens to swamp Reichert might need to be a tsunami, like the one that hit a dozen years ago, to lift Goldmark.

Kate Riley’s column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is