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Chief political reporter David Postman explores state, regional and national politics.

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February 16, 2008 4:42 PM

In Lewis County, Rossi, not McCain, is the draw

Posted by David Postman

Chehalis -- The Lewis County Republican Party’s Lincoln Day Dinner sold out Friday night. A hastily made sign hung on the door of the historic Hotel Washington telling late-comers the bad news as about 250 people mingled upstairs in the ballroom.

That’s twice the size of the crowd the party usually gets for its big dinner of the year. The pre-dinner conversation was loud and lively. My question was how excited were they about the prospect of John McCain as their presidential nominee.

To find out, I interrupted two elderly ladies talking together at a table as most people stood and mingled.

“Excited? I don’t know how excited they are,” said Billie Remund. She’s 80, lives “out in the country” and has been there for about 75 years. “I think most of them will vote for McCain,” she says of her fellow farm-country Republicans.

But it’s Rossi that gets people excited. That’s why they’re here.

Her friend Pat Dobyns agrees. She’s 75 and has lived nearly her whole life in Winlock.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi was one of the scheduled GOP speakers last night. Remund and Dobyns were excited about hearing Rossi speak and eager to watch his campaign against Gov. Chris Gregoire.

For them, McCain was a third choice at best. The two women liked that Mitt Romney had experience running the Olympics and had worked in the private sector. Remund said:

We have nobody who has any experience running a business. They’re all politicians.

Dobyns nods along and says:

It’s too bad our country can’t be run by someone other than politicians.

She has a hard time being enthusiastic about McCain. Very quietly, so I had to lean down to hear - as if it were something a lady shouldn’t even say at dinner - Dobyns says:

“If I were a Democrat, I’d vote for Obama.”

Lewis County Commissioner Ron Averill said he originally backed Fred Thompson for president. But he thinks McCain gets a bad rap. He says McCain is plenty conservative enough.

It’s a tough year for Republicans. But as we build toward the election there will be more gelling around McCain.

Lewis County was hit hard by floods late last year. Farms were wiped out. More than 1,600 animals died, including about 600 diary cows. Homes and businesses are still covered in river muck.

State Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland and Attorney General Rob McKenna, two of three statewide Republican officials in the state, toured flood damage Friday before cleaning up for the GOP banquet.

Ron Mauel, Lewis County Farm Bureau president, was at the GOP dinner but said the flood damage makes politics seem unimportant. He said there is a meeting every week about flood control and each one is packed with local residents.

These folks are trying to get their lives back together.

He said that so far he and the farmers have been happy with the response from the state Department of Agriculture, under Democrat Gregoire, and Sutherland’s Department of Natural Resources. Party identification doesn’t mean much when you have bridges out, fields empty and abandoned homes.

Cooperation has been exceptional. I don’t care who you are if you can help our farmers.

Republican legislators are hoping for a variety of flood assistance in this year’s legislative session. And FEMA has begun to pay people for lost homes. But there’s an independent streak here prized by Republicans. Lest anyone think they’re waiting for a handout, Mark Anders, a petroleum engineer says with a thick Texas drawl that belies his 16 years here:

After Katrina you had folks sitting on the sidewalk holding signs that said, “George Bush come save me.” Folks here didn’t do that. They got to work themselves.

Anders, the county GOP chairman, said that Rep. Ron Paul may have the strongest following in the county among the party’s presidential hopefuls. The Texas congressman’s libertarian foundation “is pretty indicative of the folks who live in Lewis County.”

Anders said that he would tell Rossi that Lewis County Republicans don’t want him to be governor because they want something from the state. But rather, “we want to send him to Olympia for what you can stop the state from doing to us.”

At the same time, Sutherland was assuring the local Republicans that his agency and the state would continue to help in clean up of the flood.

Anders says Lewis County is the only county in western Washington with no Democrats in county government. This is the sort of place he thinks can help elect Rossi, and maybe even get the state to back a Republican presidential candidate.

He believes there could be a sort of reverse coat-tails. If counties like Lewis can run up the vote for Rossi, that would boost vote totals for McCain, too. And if national Republicans can be made to believe that before next fall, perhaps the party and its presidential nominee will stay and compete in Washington, where Ronald Reagan stands as the last GOP presidential candidate to win the state.

He says Rossi has to pick his battlegrounds and worry more about running up huge margins in conservative areas than trying to eke out even a slim win in more liberal places.

You’ve got to be realistic. No offense, I know you work for The Seattle Times. But when you have a district that sends Jihad Jimmy to Congress with 80 percent of the vote, that’s what we call in Texas digging where there’s no dirt.

You get these people charged up and they’ll say, ‘I live in little Lewis County in a Podunk town. But you know what, I can make a difference.

Rossi was clearly the star in the room. Republicans crowded around him and pushed family members next to him for a quick snapshot. Rossi wouldn’t tell me who he backs for president. He said he’d vote in Tuesday’s primary, but said in a couple of different ways that he had no interest in letting me know his choice among the Republican field.

“I have only one opponent,” he says. And if the governor’s not on the ballot, Rossi figures he doesn’t have to talk about it. He said he will “stay on message” no matter what. And the presidential race isn’t part of that.

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