Sen. Maria Cantwell rises from her seat on the floor of the U.S. Senate and calmly begins speaking about the nation's overdependence on...

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — Sen. Maria Cantwell rises from her seat on the floor of the U.S. Senate and calmly begins speaking about the nation’s overdependence on fossil fuels. Facing off against Big Oil and Big Republicanism, she is fighting this day to prevent drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a battle she will lose narrowly and gracefully.

Sometimes you win by losing. At least that may be what happens with the refuge, an issue that will play well for her in next year’s re-election campaign. Her race could be one of the top five Senate contests in the country. The GOP is raring and ready to slam her as a low-performing, typical liberal who voted for the Bill Clinton tax increase and against the George Bush tax cuts.

Five years ago, voters got to know Cantwell’s name fairly well. A business-oriented Democrat running against Republican Sen. Slade Gorton, she spent part of her personal fortune bombarding the airwaves for months before the 2000 election. Her ad campaign featured photos of her mom and dad, of her in a pharmacy with senior citizens, in a classroom with school kids. It worked.

Then, in the way of many freshmen senators, she all but disappeared from view for the average voter. If college newcomers have to be leery of gaining the freshman 15 pounds, first-term senators have to worry about vanishing from public consciousness after the election. It was as true of Cantwell as it was of Sen. Patty Murray.

But for the past two years, at home in Snohomish County and here in the nation’s capital, there have been significant sightings of Cantwell, notably in her role battling Enron’s gouging of local electricity ratepayers and her efforts to preserve the Alaskan wilderness by moving more toward alternative energy.

For two days in March, she was in the national spotlight over legislation called the Cantwell amendment, which would have blocked budget gimmickry allowing drilling in the Alaskan refuge.

Cantwell’s role was no accident. It is common for party leaders to hand a senator high-profile legislation if she is facing re-election any time soon.

The day before the vote, Cantwell and Sens. John Kerry and Joe Lieberman convened a press conference. It was a moment for her to bask in whatever glow can be gleaned from the star power of two former Democratic presidential contenders.

In the end, Cantwell, most Democrats and a handful of moderate Republicans — including Sens. Gordon Smith of Oregon, John McCain of Arizona, and Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine — voted not to allow drilling in Alaska. They lost 51-49.

But Cantwell, understandably disappointed, also gained something. She has been a member of the Senate Committee on Energy since 2001. This time, she showed strong leadership skills on a key energy and environmental issue.

Her work on the refuge dovetails with her very public opposition to private accounts as a remedy for Social Security. She must cleave toward mainstream issues — and speak in moderate tones — if she is to push back Republican contentions that she is just another predictable liberal. Increasingly, statewide races are decided in suburban Puget Sound, where voters are socially liberal, fiscally conservative and in favor of preserving an environment that makes Washington different than everyplace else.

A GOP target

It hardly seems it was five years ago when Cantwell was in high campaign mode, racing around the state introducing herself. Prior to that, she had been a state legislator, a congresswoman from the 1st District of Seattle’s northern suburbs, and an executive at RealNetworks, the company that brought audio and video streaming to the computer. Most voters outside the district did not know her, but she beat Gorton, a GOP stalwart in public office for four decades, by 2,229 votes.

That tiny margin resonates today. A few weeks ago, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, sent a fund-raising e-mail saying Cantwell tops the list of GOP Senate targets in 2006.

Sitting in the opulent Senate dining room, stirring more than eating a bowl of bean soup and sipping a Diet Coke, Cantwell shrugged off the idea that she should be running scared.

“It’s kind of good to be that (top GOP target) right now,” she said, sounding more calm and collected than she did during her last campaign. “It gets people galvanized. It gets people paying attention. It is like getting up for the big soccer game Sunday.”

Schumer may say Cantwell is most prominent in GOP sights, but the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, the bible on such races, does not view her as the most endangered Democrat. At least not yet.

Jennifer Duffy, who has handicapped Senate races for 15 years for Cook, said Minnesota is the big prize because the seat will be open. Senators from Michigan, Nebraska, Florida and Washington are considered next most vulnerable.

Cantwell spent her early years in the Senate finding her place and paying down campaign debt that soared as her RealNetworks stock, the source of much of her money, plummeted.

She also traveled the state, studying issues, making personal connections. Ken Weaver, a Republican businessman and father of a young firefighter killed in the disastrous Thirty Mile Fire four years ago, said he will vote for Cantwell against any challenger because she worked hard to improve firefighter safety.

“She has understood better than anyone else, because she took the time to do her homework and understands the forces at work here,” said Weaver, who lost his only son, Devin, because of what he calls gross negligence by the Forest Service. “I see what she did and know how hard she worked. There was nothing phony about her. She was the real deal.”

If her first Senate campaign was introductory, the next one is about her record, the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately of American politics.

To her critics, she took too long to get out of gear. She did take her time. To my mind, you could mark the moment she began to hit her stride.

Hitting her stride

From her perch on the energy committee, Cantwell long had monitored post-energy-crisis issues for Northwest ratepayers. She became increasingly vocal the past two years. She is a champion for the Snohomish County Public Utility District and other utilities in the Northwest harmed by the Western energy crisis. Snohomish PUD, for example, fought to extricate itself from a fraudulent Enron contract. Cantwell pressured the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to expedite the case. She formally asked for an investigation of Enron’s role.

Cantwell has lived in Snohomish County for 20 years, so taking on a hated company that bilked thousands of local ratepayers makes this an ideal signature issue, and it is hers.

No candidate can run on one or two issues, and she won’t either. As one of the earliest employees of RealNetworks, Cantwell was tapped recently to co-chair the Senate Democrats’ new high-tech task force.

Last month, the lobbying arm of the high-tech industry, the Information Technology Industry Council, named her one of four “legislators of the year” for supporting tech-oriented legislation.

The council described Cantwell as a leader on such issues, including her support of class-action legal reform that gives companies greater freedom to innovate.

“Sen. Cantwell came to Washington, D.C., with a unique mix of expertise and experience that makes her very well-suited to be a resource to her colleagues on tech issues and a go-to member of the Senate for the tech industry during debates on tech policy,” said Jack Krumholtz, managing director of federal government affairs for Microsoft.

Republicans are reasonably buoyed by former state Sen. Dino Rossi’s performance in the governor’s race, the best showing by a Republican for that office in decades. Rossi is the GOP’s first choice for U.S. Senate if he wants it.

Republicans are working feverishly to proffer more mainstream candidates who can win statewide. If the goal is to defeat a sitting senator, best to do it after the first term. The GOP plans to attack Cantwell as a weak leader out of sync with tax-averse Washington voters.

First, however, the party needs to come up with a name challenger. Nothing will begin, says state party Chairman Chris Vance, until it is clear Rossi is not available either because he doesn’t want the job or has a chance to become governor.

The likely foes

There are, so far, three or four possible Republican contenders. The following is an analysis of possible matchups.

• Rossi: Rossi would benefit from pent-up feeling that he was robbed of the governor’s title. That felt more true about three months ago. The downside is Rossi can no longer hide from social issues, as he did during the governor’s race. Rossi is anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage. He no longer can say the job he seeks doesn’t have anything to do with such topics. He also loses his status as a change agent, which served him well in the governor’s race. Republicans are in power. He is another vote for an over-empowered George Bush.

• Former Congressman Rick White: This grudge match would be a revival of the 1st District congressional battle of 1994. White beat Cantwell in the Republican landslide and held on for two terms until 1998. The first question about White is, where the heck has he been? He is currently president and CEO of TechNet, the technology network, an association of high-tech CEOs based in Palo Alto, Calif. White lives in Washington and commutes to California, but he would have some explaining to do.

• Safeco President and CEO Mike McGavick: McGavick, former chief of staff for Sen. Gorton, is the wonder executive who turned Safeco around. He has politics and policy in his blood. If I were Cantwell, McGavick is the challenger I would least like to run against. He would bring a businessman’s touch and political savvy gained in Gorton’s shop. But he earns a high salary at Safeco and may not like the legislator role. A CEO is a CEO, unaccustomed to collaborating with 99 peers and making two cross-continental flights a week. Still, McGavick has charm and a knockout résumé.

• Vance: Vance is the outspoken, in-your-face chairman of the state GOP who has never wanted to be just party chairman. He ran for state superintendent of public instruction, a nonpartisan post, in 1996 and lost. He ran for the 9th Congressional District in 2000 and was beaten by Adam Smith, collecting a mere 35 percent of the vote. Landslide Vance lives and breathes politics. He would run and doorbell at a pace that would tire the Energizer Bunny. He is the fallback candidate if the others don’t materialize.

Senate races these days are long, exhausting, expensive and personal. In the first campaign, Cantwell earned the unflattering moniker Maria Cant-smile because of her serious, almost cold, personal demeanor.

My impression from spending a few days with her in D.C. is she still has that 1,000-miles-away stare, but seems considerably more comfortable with who she is and what she has accomplished.

More important, issues of fair rates for electricity ratepayers, a pristine environment and protecting Social Security from the misguided ideas of President Bush and the Republicans will play well in the cul de sacs of suburban Puget Sound where this contest very likely will be fought most vigorously and decided.

Joni Balter is a Seattle Times editorial writer and columnist. She can be reached at