Queen of clean politics fails to impress Seattle

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The Independent US

If Al Gore were the man of the hour and the Democrats were poised for victory in next week's US elections, Maria Cantwell would look like a politician whose time had come.

If Al Gore were the man of the hour and the Democrats were poised for victory in next week's US elections, Maria Cantwell would look like a politician whose time had come.

Running for the Senate from Washington state, she is not a unionist or a lawyer, as Democratic candidates once were almost by definition. She is an internet entrepreneur, a shining star of the New Economy, Al Gore-style.

Having made her fortune as an executive with the Seattle-based company RealNetworks, she has mounted a remarkably strong challenge to the incumbent Republican, Slade Gorton, one of the most influential power-brokers on Capitol Hill and a man with a formidable reputation in his home state.

Her party trick is that she has refused contributions from corporations and all so-called "soft money" - indirect support channelled largely into negative television advertising.

While Mr Gorton has raked in millions from big corporations and campaigned hard and dirty, she has chosen to finance the bulk of her campaign herself.

In an Al Gore universe, she would be queen - centrist, dynamic, friendly to business without kowtowing to corporate interests. But Mr Gore's presidential bid is in deep trouble and she is beginning to look like an emblem of all that ails it.

Since she began cashing out her RealNetworks stock options in February, the stock price has plummeted by up to 70 per cent. Not only has that raised the spectre of recession after the unprecedented boom of the Clinton-Gore administration, it has caused thornyproblems for her campaign.

"This is getting to be tough," she said recently, admitting her fund-raising target of $8m (£5.5m) was looking more elusive than she had expected. Increasingly, she has spent time away from the campaign trail making phone calls to solicitcontributions from supporters.

That, in turn, has dampened enthusiasm for her candidacy, particularly from liberal urban voters in Seattle who take issue with her pro-business slant, her championing of non-unionised dot.com companies, and her unapologetic support of globalisation - the issue that brought 50,000 people to the streets of Seattle at the World Trade Organisation summit in December last year.

Ms Cantwell is still doing well - hammering away at Mr Gorton's poor environmental record, his closeness to the hard-right leadership in Washington and his over-familiarity with the corridors of power. But her solid lead in the polls has slipped. In a televised debate this week, the ever-savvy Mr Gorton skewered her as someone showing "contempt" for the 90 per cent of the state that is not engaged in hi-tech enterprises, and accused her of listening only to the metropolitan press in Seattle.

One of her advisers, Jed Lewison, said: "If she wins it will be a symbol of people's desire to change the corrupt campaign financing system. For an incumbent Senator as big as Gorton to be vulnerable is already a powerful statement."

But the tumbling share price of RealNetworks and other powerhouses of the New Economy has made voters wary; Mr Gorton has a record of bringing home federal dollars, while Ms Cantwell fared less well as a congresswoman in the 1990s.

And so the middle is falling out of the Democratic electorate. Ms Cantwell and Mr Gore may be lucky, but the pendulum is swinging markedly in the other direction.