Sen. Akaka Defends Age in Campaign to Win Hawaii Democratic Primary

Respect for your elders? Not in Hawaii's Senate race.

Brash moderate Rep. Ed Case, 53, is telling voters it's time to force out affable liberal Sen. Daniel Akaka, 82, and end a political career notable for its length more than its achievements.

Both candidates are taking to island streets, adorned in traditional leis, in advance of Saturday's Democratic primary. It's a hard-fought race that almost surely will decide the ultimate winner in this heavily Democratic state.

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Akaka and Case have been hopping from beaches to volcano-side villages as they meet voters at barbecues and "talk story" meetings, Hawaii's version of town hall sessions. Akaka greets nearly everyone he meets with a hug. Case's slick ad campaign use images of Hawaiian surf and a waterfall pool to urge voters to "catch a new wave" and buy into his idea for "pooling" health insurance.

Akaka, who has served in Congress for 30 years, shrugs off Case's insolence. He says Hawaii should keep his seniority in the Senate to preserve the state's power and clout, stemming in part from Akaka's assignments on the Armed Services and Energy and Natural Resources Committees.

Case, a cousin of America Online co-founder Steve Case and a two-term moderate House member, is counting on some Republican crossover votes in the primary. He cites one media ranking that places Akaka in the bottom five among senators, even though another ranking lumps both candidates as among the least powerful politicians in Washington.

Between Akaka and Democratic Sen. Daniel Inouye, who also turned 82 this month, Hawaii's two senators have piled up 60 years in the Senate, 17 in the House. Akaka disputes Case's contention that Inouye has done the heavy lifting.

"My age is not necessarily a bone of contention," Akaka said in a televised debate sponsored by AARP. He jokes that he wouldn't "apologize for the more deliberate speed of my words, because it's not seen as a handicap, but rather a sign of thoughtfulness and care."

Case's surprise challenge has shaken up the multicultural political establishment in Hawaii, with traditional Democrats, including Inouye, rallying around Akaka. Akaka is native Hawaiian; Case is white.

Akaka also has received a boost from nationally recognized party leaders, including Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and New York Sen. Charles Schumer.

But there's an undercurrent of support for Case based on disillusionment with Akaka's invisibility except during election season and his reliance on the Democratic Party machine.

"There have been no markers of national leadership in a 30-year career," Case said at a rare forum with both candidates.

Recent polls have showed a substantial lead for Akaka, and he holds a more than 2-to-1 advantage in money, having raised more than $2 million to Case's $817,000 early this month.

Hawaii Republicans are struggling. Jerry Coffee, a former Vietnam prisoner of war, was their best prospect until he left for a month in Africa after announcing his candidacy, then abandoned the race due to illness. Gov. Linda Lingle is urging fellow Republicans to vote for Coffee in the GOP primary anyway, enabling her to name a replacement on the November ballot.

Case argues the best way to serve Hawaii's influence in Congress would be to replace Akaka now with a younger, more vigorous Democrat who can start building up seniority before both old senators step down.

Hawaii, dependent on federal military spending, could end up following the path of Oregon, whose federal dollars steeply declined after Sens. Bob Packwood and Mark Hatfield left office in 1995 and 1996, Case argues.

The war in Iraq is also a critical issue in Hawaii, a state with a firm pro-military history but strong opposition to President Bush.

Akaka trumpets his repeated votes against the war and his vote with only 12 other senators for troop withdrawal by July 2007. Case has sided with lawmakers who contend that a strict timetable could prove disastrous.

That helped secure the support of David Elarionoff of Honolulu, who said he will vote for Case because "just pulling out is far worse than staying." George Okimoto, an undecided voter, isn't buying Case's pitch for a younger senator. "Age doesn't mean anything to me," he said. "It's not that simple."

Neither candidate has much to tout in the way of congressional accomplishments.

Akaka's showpiece legislation, which carries his name, would give Native Hawaiians the same recognition as other indigenous groups such as American Indians, but it failed to advance in Washington again this year.

Case has not taken a position on the bill other than to say Native Hawaiians, some of whom oppose the legislation, should decide how they want to be governed.