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Can smaller campaigns sway Senate race?

Call them The Others.

Almost all the attention in Washington's marquee Senate race is riveted on the favored Democratic incumbent, Maria Cantwell, and her aggressive Republican challenger, Mike McGavick.

But voters, particularly critics of the Iraq War and those looking for an alternative to the mainline parties, have three other options, all of whom could siphon off Cantwell votes. All three advocate speedy withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and support marriage equality for gays.

The trio:

- Bruce Guthrie, the Libertarian Party nominee, has cleaned out his piggy bank and dumped more than $1 million into his campaign so he could be included in this week's Senate debate in Seattle. Cantwell forces call him a wild card in the race.

Guthrie, a former Western Washington University instructor now pursuing credentials to teach high school, calls himself "socially progressive and fiscally responsible" and says he expects to pick up votes across the political spectrum.

- The Green Party's Aaron Dixon, once active in the black power movement, is stumping the state, urging reformists, Naderites and anti-war activists to vote their beliefs rather than hold-your-nose pragmatism.

Like Guthrie, he is openly courting critics of the war and the U.S. Patriot Act. His extensive campaign Web site includes a separate listing for "the so-called Spoiler issue" and inveighs against "lesser-evil voting."

- And Robin Adair, who describes herself as a Seattle mom and super-volunteer, is running a quixotic campaign as an independent. She's also anti-war and says the government should get out of people's private lives.

Could the also-rans make a difference in this election? The Cantwell and McGavick campaigns and independent observers don't think so, although they're watching Guthrie's potential surge.

Making a difference?

Another Libertarian in another election, interestingly enough, was a big reason Cantwell won the seat in the first place. Six years ago, Jeff Jared rolled up almost 65,000 votes in an election that Cantwell won by just 2,229 votes.

It's generally agreed that he cost the incumbent Republican senator, Slade Gorton, more votes than Cantwell because Jared stressed the more conservative aspects of Libertarian thought - smaller, less restrictive government, for instance - and Gorton hadn't fired up his GOP base enough.

Today, it's Cantwell who has been fighting hard to glue her fractious party together. Four years ago, she voted to authorize the war in Iraq and only recently began distancing herself from that vote. That has led to protests and lukewarmness on the left.

She sailed through last month's Democratic primary with 91 percent, but didn't have a big-name, well-heeled anti-war opponent. Party elders believe she has united the party, if only around the notion that it wouldn't do to elect another Republican senator for George Bush.

Neither Cantwell nor McGavick seem concerned about the third-party challengers.

Cantwell's chief strategist, Michael Meehan, concedes that Guthrie's inclusion in this week's televised debate elevates his stature and gives him a platform to air wedge issues such as Iraq.

"That is a new wrinkle," he said.

Meehan says Cantwell isn't worried about significant defections. The Senate race is the top draw for the election and voters won't throw away their vote just to express their anger, he said.

"It's hard to imagine someone so mad. If you want to send a protest vote, it's a Cantwell vote that says you don't want the Republicans in control anymore."

Elliott Bundy, McGavick strategist and spokesman, agreed that Guthrie will gain some exposure and could draw from Cantwell.

"The defining issue across the country has been Iraq," Bundy said. "Mike and the senator have more or less the same position."

Since Libertarians typically draw from both the left and the right, McGavick could also lose voters who like fiscal conservatism mixed with live-and-let-live social views on gay marriage, pot and abortion.

Remember Nader?

Election-watchers don't expect the third party challengers to be a factor.

Independent pollster Stuart Elway says the three are just a blip in the polls, and that Cantwell is too far ahead of McGavick for defections to matter. National analysts call it a "lean-Democrat" seat and the polls show Cantwell ahead by roughly 9 points.

"All together, they may get 3 percent of the vote," Elway said.

Democratic strategist Terry Thompson says left-of-center voters learned their lesson by voting for Ralph Nader in 2000 and helping elect George W. Bush.

"Most people will be cautious about wasting a vote," he says.

Bits and pieces

- Jed Whittaker, an Olympia Independent who opposes the Iraq War, has launched a write-in campaign for 3rd District Congress.

- The Olympia headquarters for the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission will be renamed to honor the late Commissioner Dick Hemstad, who was then-Gov. Dan Evans' legal counsel, state senator and law professor before a long career on the WUTC.

- Ellen Malcolm, head of EMILY's List, which recruits and helps finance pro-abortion rights women candidates, zipped through Seattle the other day to check on the prospects for Cantwell and Burner. She predicts victories by both.

- Rudy Giuliani, whose presidential aspirations poll well among Washington Republicans, stumped for McGavick in Seattle this week. Sen. John McCain, another likely White House contender, campaigned for McGavick earlier. Hillary Clinton, Russ Feingold, John Kerry, Joe Biden, John Edwards, Barack Obama and other potential candidates have campaigned for Cantwell. David Ammons is The Associated Press's state political writer and has covered the statehouse since 1971. He can be reached at P.O. Box 607, Olympia, WA 98507, or dammons@ap.org.

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