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U.S. Senate contest recalls 2002 gubernatorial race

Mazie Hirono ran against Linda Lingle for governor, and that matchup might repeat

By Derrick DePledge

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While the cast of characters could be the same, the U.S. Senate race next year might have a different story line from the governor's campaign of a decade ago.

U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono and former U.S. Rep. Ed Case have declared for the Democratic primary to replace U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, while former Gov. Linda Lingle, a Republican, has said she will decide by August whether to run.

Hirono, then lieutenant governor, prevailed over Manoa state Rep. Case in the Democratic primary for governor in 2002, but she was weakened and fell to Lingle in the general election.

"This is a new ballgame, and there are a lot of differences between Linda Lingle and me should I be the candidate that emerges from the primary. And I intend to be that person," Hirono said yesterday by telephone from Washington, D.C.

Hirono chose not to make any comparisons between her and Case, but said Lingle has not supported President Barack Obama and did not push hard enough for energy independence or education reform. Lingle made energy independence a major theme of her final years in office and had called during her first term for breaking up the state Department of Education into local school districts with local school boards.

Both Hirono and Case have said the focus of the primary will likely be on job creation as the state and the nation try to emerge from recession.

"I've been very focused on jobs because that's what the people of Hawaii care about — the economy," Hirono said. "They are dealing with the rising cost of gasoline, utilities, groceries — these are everyday concerns that they'd like us to help with."

Many Democrats believe they were undone a decade ago by their own disarray. Hirono, trailing Honolulu's then-Mayor Jeremy Harris in early polling, dropped out of the Democratic primary for governor in November 2001 and said she was running for mayor. Harris, trailing Lingle in early polling, abandoned his campaign in May 2002 after concluding he could not beat the Republican. Hirono pivoted and returned to the governor's race.

Next year, local Democrats hope to benefit from the deep well of support voters in the islands have for the Hawaii-born Obama, who will be up for re-election.

"I don't think there is any question that that is going to give a lift to the entire ticket. Certainly, it did so in 2008, and we anticipate there will probably be a surge again, and we hope so," said Dante Carpenter, chairman of the Democratic Party of Hawaii.

Dylan Nonaka, executive director of the state Republican Party, said there are parallels to the 2002 governor's race because many voters still have the same basic impressions of Hirono, Case and Lingle. He agreed, however, that Obama will be a factor.

Nonaka and other Republicans have referred to the 2000 elections, when Texas then-Gov. George W. Bush did poorly in Hawaii but the GOP picked up seats in the Legislature, as evidence the party can compete locally without help from the top of the ticket.

Unlike state House and Senate campaigns, however, the U.S. Senate campaign will involve many of the same federal issues as the presidential race, so Obama likely will be a presence.

"Nobody can deny that Obama being on the ballot is going to be a factor in this race," Nonaka said. "I don't think it can't be overcome, but it will definitely drive a certain sector of the electorate and that's going to affect every race down ballot."






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