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Gubernatorial Primary is Big Race in Washington

Eight states are choosing candidates Tuesday for the Senate, House and governor in the last big primary day before the November election, including a bitter gubernatorial contest and races for two open congressional seats in Washington state.

The highest-profile race is the Democratic gubernatorial primary in Washington between the state's leading black politician and a female attorney general who took on the tobacco industry in the 1990s and helped negotiate a $206 billion settlement with cigarette makers.

Christine Gregoire (search), the state's first female attorney general, has been considered the front-runner since leaping into the race on the very day Democratic Gov. Gary Locke (search) made his surprise retirement announcement last summer.

Critics have accused her of running a cautious, cookie-cutter campaign while trying to wait out the clock. Her opponent, King County executive Ron Sims (search), has hitched his uphill campaign to political dynamite — a plan for a state income tax, coupled with elimination of the business and state sales tax.

"We'll catch her," Sims said in an interview, calling the tax overhaul his secret weapon.

Gregoire said she is cautiously optimistic, but said, "I'm running like I'm 5 points behind."

Of the eight states holding primaries, few races have generated much attention. Most incumbents face little or no opposition as parties look ahead to November.

In Wisconsin, four Republicans are running to take on Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold. Washington Sen. Patty Murray and her presumptive Republican challenger, Rep. George Nethercutt, are blowing right past the primary. Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York is unopposed.

New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg has token opposition, while his Democratic opponent, a 94-year-old great-grandmother who walked across the state to promote her campaign, had no opponents in the primary. New Hampshire Gov. Craig Benson (search) aced a little-known primary opponent, while the Republican governor in neighboring Vermont, James Douglas, was unopposed.

Washington state has two hot congressional races. In the Republican-dominated 8th District in Seattle's suburbs, the law officer who caught the Green River serial killer is one of four Republicans running for the seat left open by retiring Rep. Jennifer Dunn.

King County Sheriff Dave Reichert has called the arrest of Gary Ridgway the pinnacle of his career in law enforcement, and he hopes his reputation for persistence will convince voters that he should represent them in Congress.

The state's 5th District has an open seat for the first time in more than 60 years, with Nethercutt leaving the House to run for Senate.

Three Republicans are seeking the nomination to take on uncontested Democrat Don Barbieri, the CEO of a hotel company. Nethercutt has held the seat since 1994, when he made history by dethroning then-House Speaker Tom Foley, a Democrat who had represented the district for 30 years.

The governor's race recently boiled over when Sims partisans ripped into Gregoire for belonging to an all-white sorority at the University of Washington in the late 1960s. They said the sorority was white-supremacist and that Gregoire should be ashamed of herself.

Gregoire, who blamed Sims for planting the sorority story in The Seattle Times, said she deserved credit for eventually getting the racial policy reversed. Sims denied any role in the sorority story.

Former state Sen. Dino Rossi , is heavily favored for the GOP nomination.

Washington has long operated under a wide-open "blanket" primary in which all candidates appeared on one ballot and the top finisher from each party advanced to the general election. But the Supreme court threw out such primaries, and this is the state's first primary under a new system where candidates appear on separate ballots but voters choose which ballot to cast.

The state and counties have spent millions to try to explain it all, but election officials expect that two-thirds of voters will stay home.

"The magic question is who's going to vote in this strange primary," says GOP strategist Dave Mortenson.