ALTHOUGH AN ESTIMATED 40,000 people came to Puyallup to hear right-wing superstar Rush Limbaugh and Morals Czar Bill Bennett, the day belonged to John Carlson, the radio talk-host running against Governor Gary Locke. Last Saturday, the annual Republican picnic moved from Vashon Island to the Puyallup fairgrounds in order to accommodate the crowds. The picnic, usually a day of speeches and political schmooze, was a massive rally and fund-raiser for Carlson.
The theme was "It's in the bag," and it was plain that everyone attending believes the GOP will win the presidency and both houses of Congress for the first time since 1952. Only a year ago they were fretting—things didn't seem to bode well for Republicans in 2000 after they were soundly spanked at the polls in 1998 for what voters considered their impeachment excesses.
But a hot presidential candidate has changed all that. The Great Tan Hope, George W. Bush is embraced by both moderates and conservatives and is running well with some traditional Democratic voters, including women and Hispanics. Though Al Gore has rallied recently, Bush still leads the polls in all-important electoral college votes, giving R's an exuberant hopefulness.
Two other men's names were on everyone's lips here; and like Bush, they were nowhere to be seen. One was Ronald Reagan, the last Republican who united both wings of the party. The other was the GOP's favorite ex-Democrat, Ralph Nader, who offers them a different kind of promise. "Bless him," said George Keyes, an airline mechanic from Bothell. "I sent him $25 in hopes he spends it pulling the lefties away from Gore."
SEATTLE-BASHING resonated through the fairgrounds. They booed Seattle just like they booed Barbra Streisand and "the socialists in the White House." When Senator Slade Gorton asked how many Seattleites were present, noticeably few cheers went up and laughs were had by all when he called them "the good, the few, and the true." He went on to criticize the Seattle City Council who "couldn't even manage a trade fair without a riot." Age-old animosity divides east and west in this state, and historic resentment of Seattle persists in places like Tacoma. The many victories of Gorton, and successes of initiatives such as tax-cutting I-695 and the anti- affirmative action I-200, prove you don't need to carry Seattle to be successful statewide. Nevertheless, it's hard to grasp the logic of antagonizing so many voters.
Gorton did a fair onstage impression of a human being—even planting an Al Gore-like smooch on his docile wife Sally. But he talks down to audiences, speaking simplistically, belying his education and brilliance, and sounding condescending. "I'm not a great schmoozer," he said. "My staff told me I should loosen up and be funny—I already thought I was. . . ."
Gorton, patriarch of a party that loves patriarchs, could be in the fight of his life this time. A campaign staffer told us recently that the prospect of former Congresswoman Maria Cantwell winning the Democratic nomination has them worried. Even so, this was Carlson's show and they shuffled Gorton out of the way early.
State Senator Harold Hochstatter, running for the gubernatorial nomination against Carlson, is an affable Eastern Washington ultraconservative and a little red of the neck. He talked about "pinko bedwetters" and quoted Mao, Erma Bombeck, and his "favorite Democrat" Thomas Jefferson. He seems to have memorized all of Mel Gibson's lines from Braveheart.
The right wing, which dominated the party for many years, has been given Hochstatter as sort of a consolation prize so they can pretend they have a choice. He doesn't even try to compete with Carlson. "No sense it get ugly," he said. Playing the old uncle to Carlson's fresh-faced but patronizing nephew, Hochstatter seems to have made a deal—he gets his day in the sun and in turn makes no trouble. Carlson is no moderate, and social conservatives seem mollified just having Hochstatter on the ballot, though there's no illusion that he can win or be anything but a colorful token to their once-ruling faction, with its social antiprograms and platform morality screeds.
The Maha-Rushee is no longer a big fat idiot, he's merely chubby. But Limbaugh is as fatuous as ever delivering his partisan scorn against the liberal media and "Vice Perpetrator" Gore, without pausing for laughs or applause. Limbaugh, perhaps unused to speaking outside his glass radio cubicle, was surprisingly unskilled on the stump.
No matter though, the audience loved his somewhat diminished ass, shrieking, "We love you, Rush!" like he was Britney Spears spotted at a shopping mall. Menopausal women in polyester pantsuits rushed the stage with pieces of clothing to sign. "You want to be my Tipper?" he asked creepily. "How about a telepathic orgasm?"
The day, however, belonged to Carlson. Strutting like a rock star, he took standing ovations and hogged the glow with the national bigwigs. Though it's been reported that other pols grumbled because he hijacked the picnic, the energizing and unifying effect of Carlson's coup had to be good for Republicans. There's fire here, and Gary Locke would best take note.