SEATTLE -- In previous incarnations, they were Far West totems of the politician as earnest and untainted outsider. They had the same election-winning mojo, bragging about strings they had never pulled, backroom deals they had never cut, greased palms they had never touched.
One was a self-described "mom in tennis shoes" who said career politicians "can't accomplish anything" because they owe too many favors to too many people.
The other toppled a House speaker, in large part because of his solemn vow to leave Washington, D.C., after serving six years in office.
Now, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), 53, the suburban mother and onetime pre-school teacher, is running for a third term. Having served in 2002 as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, she has become skilled in vacuuming up money from lobbyists and special interests. She has raised $12 million for her campaign this year, roughly twice as much as her Republican opponent.
Her erstwhile partner in professed political purity, Rep. George R. Nethercutt (R-Wash.), 59, who defeated Speaker Thomas S. Foley in 1994 and who in 2000 broke his term-limits pledge (saying that seniority and power are not so bad after all), is finally retiring from the House.
Not to come home, though -- he wants Murray's job.
President Bush has campaigned for Nethercutt, but the race is not especially tight. Riding what appears to be a Democratic wave in this traditionally Democratic state and playing to her suburban base in the populous Seattle area, Murray has a double-digit lead, according to several recent local polls.
But the contest is nevertheless worth a look. It shows how years in Congress and the exigencies of modern electoral politics can strip away earnestness and replace it with a calculated reluctance to debate (Murray) and over-the-top TV attack ads (Nethercutt).
After weeks of dodging debates on the grounds that she was much too busy doing the people's work on Capitol Hill, Murray exercised the prerogative of a front-running incumbent and agreed to only two televised debates. Both seemed timed and placed for strategic damage control.
The first was broadcast on a Friday night in sparsely populated, mostly GOP eastern Washington, exactly where Nethercutt does not need to persuade people to vote for him. The congressman has since offered to pay half the cost of rebroadcasting this debate. He has asked Murray to pay the other half; she has ignored him.
The second debate was on a Wednesday night in Seattle. In his concluding remarks, Nethercutt said it was a shame for democracy that Murray was refusing to participate in more TV debates. Murray, who seemed genuinely pained to be sharing a podium with the congressman, ignored the debate about the debate. Instead, she said, "I get up every day and I ask, 'How can I make life better for the people of Washington state?' "
For all the jabs that Nethercutt landed during the second debate (he relentlessly accused his opponent of being soft on terrorism and addicted to tax increases), Murray clearly won the evening -- because most television viewers did not see Nethercutt's punches. They were tuned in to another channel, watching the Boston Red Sox make history by beating the New York Yankees.
What TV viewers have seen this fall is Nethercutt's now-infamous attack ad. It shows footage of Murray telling a local high school class that Osama bin Laden won supporters by providing day care and other services to people in Afghanistan while the United States did not. The ad uses images of rubble at the World Trade Center site and at its end Nethercutt says, "Winning the war on terror means fighting terrorists, not excusing them."
Murray has said that her remarks were taken out of context, that she was merely explaining to young people how the world views the United States. The state's largest newspaper, the Seattle Times, agreed with Murray, saying, "The ad insults the intelligence of Washington voters."
For her part, Murray has run attack ads that, among other things, reveal the distance she has traveled from her mom-in-tennis-shoes persona. One brings up a hoary -- and often meaningless -- campaign accusation: Nethercutt missed some House votes while seeking higher office. The ad also accuses Nethercutt of being a "professional politician who will do anything to get elected," noting that for the Senate race he has moved to a house in the Seattle area, far from his constituents in eastern Washington.
In the debate last week, Murray, her face stony and her tone cold, refused to acknowledge that a statewide candidate -- for logistical reasons -- needs accommodations in the Seattle area.
What both candidates did agree on, however, was the need for politicians such as themselves to help Boeing Co., a major employer in the state, get more federal contracts.
They both regretted the company's "ethical" lapses -- a major criminal scandal that scuttled a $21.5 billion contract to lease Boeing refueling planes to the Air Force. The scandal has led to a jail sentence for one former Boeing official and forced the resignations of several other top company executives.
"I think what we have to do is make sure we bolster the good fortunes of Boeing," Nethercutt said.
Murray heartily concurred.
It was their only point of agreement.