"No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions." --Thomas Jefferson to John Tyler, 1804.

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Jay Inslee
Jay Inslee
Rob McKenna
Rob McKenna

Before long, the race for Washington governor in 2012 ought to get a lot clearer. Campaigns – to the point of declaration for office – for that level of office have to begin fairly early, and the ticking clock will get loud soon.

And there remain unknowns about the field. Incumbent Democrat Chris Gregoire could run for a third term; she’s been silent on the subject. But she probably won’t. Democratic Senate leader Lisa Brown of Spokane might run. There remains talk of Republican Representative Dave Reichert, a recurring winner in a King County-based district, as well.

But take this maybe as an indicator: The main polling has concerned Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna and Democratic U.S. Representative Jay Inslee (who ran once for governor before, unsuccessfully). A just-out result from Public Policy Polling shows the two of them nearly tied:

The most likely match up for Governor of Washington next year looks like it would be a barn burner, with Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna starting out with just a 40-38 lead over Democratic Congressman Jay Inslee. With 23% of Democrats and only 13% of Republicans undecided at this point that looks like a sheer toss up.

The main reason McKenna is ahead of Inslee at this point is slightly higher name recognition. 60% of voters know McKenna well enough to have formed an opinion about him, while that is true for only 51% when it comes to Inslee. The two have similar net favorability ratings with Inslee at +9 (30/21) and McKenna at +8 (34/26).

McKenna and Inslee would clearly be their party’s two strongest candidates. Christine Gregoire remains quite unpopular with 38% of voters approving of her to 48% who disapprove. She would trail McKenna 49-40 in a hypothetical contest.

Likewise Congressman Dave Reichert would not be nearly as strong as McKenna. His statewide favorability is 25/36 and he trails Inslee by a 42-36 margin and even Gregoire by a 45-41 spread.

McKenna has been a governor prospect since his first election as AG in 2004 (he had an easy and sweeping re-elect in 2008); 2012 was always the logical point for him to take his shot. His background on the King County Council gives him a strong base in a key, wing population zone. Inslee is well-positioned too. He had two defeats in the 90s (for a U.S. House seat in the Republican wave of 1994, and governor in 1996). But he did get elected once in the usually solidly Republican 4th district in central Washington, and since his 1998 return to the House in the 1st district (getting there by beating a two-term Republican incumbent), he has won solidly – his lowest recent score was 58% in the Republican year of 2010.

Could be a hell of a contest.

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