By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 10/15/2010 10:34:16 AM ET 2010-10-15T14:34:16

In Thursday night’s debate between Democratic Sen. Patty Murray and Republican challenger Dino Rossi, the most revealing moment came when a questioner asked Murray “How much of the 2,600-page legislation did you actually read?” – referring to the health care bill Congress passed this year.

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“Not only did I read it – but I helped write it,” Murray replied confidently.

What a quick-witted attack-dog opponent might have done with this opening, one could only imagine: he might have asked her, “So, were you the one who wrote the part cutting $500 billion from Medicare spending for our seniors over the next ten years?”

As it was, Rossi responded to Murray by saying business owners were telling him that the new law was driving up the cost of health coverage for their workers. Rossi, a former state senator and two-time unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate, seems too mellow and mild-mannered to be an attack dog — but to a large degree, the TV ads run by outside groups have done that job.

Murray’s answer — “I helped write it”— was revealing because it showed that, unlike most Democratic incumbents elsewhere, she sees the health care bill as an election year benefit, not a liability.

In the post-debate spin session for reporters, Rossi did rattle off a series of prosecutorial questions which he might use in their second debate on Sunday night: “Did she write the parts that are going to take Medicare Advantage away from seniors? Did she write the part with the $100 billion tax increase that's going to kill jobs in the state of Washington? Well, if she wrote the bill, then quite frankly that’s what we’re going to be talking about.”

Asked why he didn’t bring those retorts up during the debate, Rossi said, “Well, we’ll talk about that as we go along. We have another debate on Sunday.”

Early voting
But ballots are arriving in voters’ mailboxes across the state as soon as Friday, so some voters might be deciding on Murray v. Rossi even before Sunday’s debate. During Thursday night’s back-and-forth, on two occasions Rossi did mention the $500 billion in reduced Medicare spending required by the health care bill, but Murray simply smiled and didn’t dispute the $500 billion figure. (The Congressional Budget Office estimates that law will cut $455 billion from Medicare spending over the next ten years.)

Instead she said Rossi’s support for continuing the current tax rates for all taxpayers (known as “the Bush tax cuts”) would mean such a huge loss of future tax revenues that “there is no way we can sustain the programs that are so important for us.”

In her own post-debate spin for reporters, Murray made an earnest pitch for the good things that she says the bill will accomplish and the positive response she says it is getting: “More often than not now, I am hearing people who are telling me, ‘Gosh, I didn’t know that my business was going to get a tax credit. All of a sudden I can provide health insurance at much less cost and I’m not sending my employees to the emergency room because they don’t have health care.’”

Securing 'investments'
First elected in 1992, (along with Bill Clinton, who’s coming to the state to campaign for her Monday) Murray is now a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, well positioned to channel billions of dollars to this state’s public transport systems, sewer projects, and urban redevelopment proposals.

The standard playbook for debating such an incumbent would be to make her incumbency a liability and try to show the incumbent is out of touch with ordinary people.

But Murray — a disciplined, unflustered and battle-tested candidate after 30 years in politics — succeeded in continually portraying herself as the regular mom from humble Main St. origins who has lived the lives that her constituents are living.

To the college student who asked (via videotape) during the debate about how he could get help to pay for his education since his parents made a bit too much income to meet the federal aid threshold, Murray smiled and had her answer ready: “I know exactly how you feel.”

That indeed could be the motto of her campaign and perhaps her entire Senate career.

She described how her family, too, struggled to pay for educating her and her siblings.

“I want people to know that I love the state… They are my family and I go to bat for them every day and I will … make sure they have a voice at the table in Washington D.C.,” Murray told reporters at the post-debate spin session.

But it was also revealing that in a year in which the federal deficit, $1.3 trillion, is the second biggest in all the years since World War II, Murray asked the question “How are we going to pay for this?” only about the spending on the U.S. military operations in Afghanistan — not about spending federal money on aid to education, or on the health sciences facilities at Spokane’s Riverpoint Campus (which she touted in one of her answers), or on her other favored causes. “It’s my job to fight for investments,” meaning federal appropriations, she said in the debate.

Rossi had an effective debate opener: “If we don’t have a course correction in this election, I think we’re going to wake up 24 months from now in a country we don’t even recognize … The problem in Washington D.C. is they just can’t admit when they’re wrong. They can’t change course.”

And his one-minute closer was simple and resonant: “Which direction do you really want to go? You have an 18-year incumbent that has voted for bailing out banks and the stimulus which has added a trillion dollars to the deficit… You can go in a different direction if you want. You can go with Sen. Murray or come with me.”

But in between, Rossi was not always successful at connecting the dots.

Divergent polls
Polls are finding wildly divergent results in this race: A KING 5 poll Wednesday found Murray in a virtual tie with Rossi: 50 percent for her; 47 percent for him. But two other surveys this week found Murray with much bigger leads: Stuart Elway, a veteran Seattle pollster, had Murray up by 15 points and a Time/CNN poll found her leading by eight points.

The state hasn’t elected a Republican senator since Slade Gorton won re-election in 1994. Even in what seems to be a bad year for Democrats elsewhere, Rossi was always going to have a steep hill to climb in this Democratic leaning state. Thursday night’s debate showed that he has some daunting work to do in Sunday’s debate and in the campaign’s closing days to make sure he’s the next Republican senator.

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