Ruling to figure in whether Talmadge runs

Former Supreme Court Justice Phil Talmadge left the court in part because he missed partisan politics. But his political future could be decided in the courts.

Talmadge, also a former state senator from Seattle, has been talking up a possible run for governor. He may even run against incumbent Gov. Gary Locke, a fellow Democrat.

Talmadge says that among Democratic faithful, "There's generally not a lot of enthusiasm about Gary. They say, 'I really like the guy, but he isn't doing anything.' "

But taking on an incumbent in a primary is a tough road. It would be a lot easier, Talmadge concedes, if the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco throws out Washington's blanket primary, which allows people to vote for candidates of any party.

Talmadge figures if only die-hard Democrats were voting on the Democratic nominees, he could defeat Locke, who appeals to moderates and independent voters.

U.S. District Judge Franklin Burgess upheld the primary in a March ruling, which since has been appealed to the 9th Circuit. The state's political parties sued to end the blanket primary, saying it encourages "crossover" voting, diluting the parties' powers.

Locke hasn't said whether he is running for a third term, though he has been raising money.

He may not officially decide until next year. If he then decides not to run, Talmadge says, it would be difficult for another challenger to mount a serious campaign in time for the November 2004 election.

Locke's political consultant, Blair Butterworth, says Talmadge is encouraged by a general sense of unhappiness among voters during tough times.

"Phil's out there having a good time," Butterworth says. "It's easy to go around and talk about wonderland."

For those who question how serious Talmadge is, last week he was in Yakima speaking to a gathering of water and sewer commissioners.

Department of trial balloons

Even before Republican Trent Matson made his departure from the 3rd Congressional District race public Thursday, GOP officials — clued in to Matson's decision — were looking for another candidate to run against Democratic U.S. Rep. Brian Baird.

As of late last week, there were some interesting names being floated. But forget former U.S. Rep. Linda Smith. She says she's not interested.

Speculation was stoked when she was seen in D.C. last week on Capitol Hill and at the White House just as Matson was making his announcement.

But she was there for her work against international sex trafficking. After leaving Congress, she started an organization to help young female prostitutes in India. "I am not connected at the hip with politics anymore. Honest," Smith said after returning home.

At the same time, Republicans were checking with a local boy who made good in D.C. to see if he would come back to the state and run in the 3rd.

Rob Nichols worked on U.S. Rep. Jennifer Dunn's and former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton's staffs, worked for the state party and helped Smith in her 1998 run for the Senate. Now he is deputy assistant secretary for public affairs at the Treasury Department.

He grew up in Seattle but has never lived in the 3rd District. But if Nichols made the move, he'd be following a tradition of former Capitol Hill staff members moving back to the state to run for office.

While every state legislator from the district has probably given some thought to the race as well, state Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Vancouver, was the name coming up most last week. He wouldn't have to give up his Senate seat to do it.

Honest, I helped the Democrats

Meanwhile, in late returns from the 2000 election, Ralph Nader, who is blamed by many Democrats for tilting the presidential election to George Bush, says he's responsible for one of the greatest Democratic successes since the election.

In an e-mail exchange with Nader on online magazine Slate, journalist James Fallows tells his old friend Nader that he doesn't want to rehash the 2000 election and play the blame game.

But Nader can't resist. He says the Green Party should be given credit for tilting the U.S. Senate to the Democrats because people in Washington state who voted for him also voted for Maria Cantwell and edged her past Slade Gorton, giving the Senate a 50-50 split and leading to the party-switching of Sen. Jim Jeffords.

"Sen. Cantwell won over the incumbent, Sen. Gorton, by a mere 2,300 votes, and, absent a Green senatorial candidate, my 103,000 votes went heavily for Cantwell, in part because of their deep aversion to Gorton's votes and policies,'' Nader wrote.

"Sen. Harry Reid (of Nevada) told us in his office that he and Cantwell were 'very well aware' of the Green spillover vote," Nader wrote.

Inside Politics is written and compiled by Seattle Times chief political reporter David Postman.