SEATTLE -- Democratic Senate challenger Ron Sims, in a debate here with Republican Sen. Slade Gorton the other day, invoked the name of the man he hoped to work with if he ousts Gorton on Nov. 8. No, not President Clinton. Sims said he was NTC looking forward to cooperating with Republican Sen. John Chafee of Rhode Island.
Sims, aware of the uncertain popularity of the Democratic president and the public unhappiness with a Congress led by the Democrats, is painting himself as a model of bipartisanship. If elected, he says, he will "reach across the aisle" to Republicans such as Chafee, who this year made a lengthy but ultimately futile effort to shape an acceptable bipartisan health care reform package.
Chafee's "Mainstream Committee" of Senate moderates should be the formula for breaking gridlock in the next Congress, Sims said in the debate. He cited cooperative efforts with Republicans on the King County Council on which he serves and said that he would bring the same spirit of bipartisanship to the Senate.
Gorton, who joined the partisan Republican effort to obstruct most Clinton proposals in the final weeks before the Senate recessed, did not let debate listeners forget that Sims, for all his talk of bipartisanship, is a liberal Democrat who as a senator could be counted to go down the line with the Democratic president.
"The question is, do we want one more member whose allegiance is to the party in power?" he asked.
A few hours later in Everett, Gorton warned Republicans at a small fund-raising reception that they are facing "a peculiar phenomenon." Without specifying Sims, he told his audience that "every Democrat is acting like a Republican." The Democrats, he said, were not pushing liberal, centralized programs, but rather "they're sort of pretending they're just like us."
Gorton said he was a member of an original Chafee task force to find a health care reform alternative, and that he or an aide had attended some of Chafee's Mainstream Committee deliberations. But the proposals that finally resulted were unsatisfactory and came too late, he said, for studied consideration.
Beyond Sims' stated intention to "reach across the aisle" and work with Republicans, any suggestion that he is pretending to be a Republican is ludicrous. The Sims-Gorton contest offers a clear liberal-conservative choice. Although Sims is seeking to become the only African-American male in the Senate, race does not appear to be an issue.
The key issue is whether the voters here buy the argument that congressional gridlock is the fault of Clinton and the Democrats in control of both the House and the Senate, or whether Gorton as an incumbent is also held to account, though he is a Republican.
Polls with varying reliability have shown Gorton ahead by as much as 10 percentage points, after a 52 percent finish in the state's nonpartisan primary last month. Sims as the runner-up with 29 percent -- one of three Democrats in the race -- won the right to face Gorton on Nov. 8.
But Gorton has never been overwhelmingly popular in this often-progressive state. After one term, he lost to Democrat Brock Adams but was returned to the Senate in 1988 after, in effect, apologizing to the voters for what many considered an excess of arrogance.
In an obvious effort to humanize Gorton, a wooden campaigner, an ad shows him jogging up a hill in shorts and grinning. The ad is somewhat incongruous, in that the message is that Gorton is tough on crime.
In a race overshadowed by House Speaker Thomas S. Foley's fight for re-election, Sims was not regarded as having much chance, but he has been hitting the incumbent hard on his votes to cut social spending. A new ad blames Gorton for the savings-and-loan scandal while he chaired a Senate oversight committee and drags out his vote for a pay raise, as the ad puts it, "in the dead of night . . . even though he is a millionaire."
Gorton has trotted out the old "empty chair" ad in charging that Sims has missed 88 percent of County Council committee meetings. A GOP council member has called it "a cheap shot." Sims shot back that Gorton missed two recent Senate committee meetings. And so it goes.
Gorton remains the favorite, but there seldom is enthusiasm here for him, so the more personable Sims cannot be written off. With the Democrats fearful of losing seven seats and control of the Senate, Sims could be a sleeper thwarting that Republican goal.