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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Wednesday, February 26, 2003

Lingle linking fate with Bush

By David Shapiro

When Linda Lingle first ran for governor in 1998, she was asked why she chose the Republican Party upon entering politics as a candidate for the Maui Council in 1980.

She explained that it was a tactical decision: She had a better chance of beating the leading Democrat in the general election as a Republican than as a challenger in the Democratic primary.

Not much philosophical conviction in that. It left many voters wondering exactly what kind of a Republican Linda Lingle was — a mystery that persisted through her two campaigns for governor as she walked a political tightrope in this strongly Democratic state by pounding local issues while soft-pedaling nationally divisive partisan matters such as abortion, school prayer and the war on terrorism.

As she gets comfortable after three months as Hawai'i's governor, Lingle's brand of Republicanism is finally starting to show through.

On her trip to Washington, D.C., for a national governor's meeting this week, she's emerged as a visible and partisan advocate for President Bush on contentious issues ranging from war with Iraq to the economy to homeland security.

Lingle has barely made a dent in getting Hawai'i's public spending under control, but she was quoted as criticizing the excessive spending of Democratic governors in other states.

When Democratic governors came out of a meeting with Bush complaining that he had not offered sufficient funding to back up federal mandates on education, Medicaid and homeland security, Lingle was among the first Republican governors to go before TV cameras to support the president.

She impressed Republicans enough that there's talk of Lingle playing a major national fund-raising role in the national GOP campaign in 2004.

The tenor of the trip was summed up when Lingle ended one TV interview on local matters by gushing unsolicited words of gratitude at the president.

"I want to thank him for his leadership in these very difficult times in the area of fighting terrorism, homeland security and, of course, the international issues with Iraq and his attempt to find a peaceful solution to (Saddam) Hussein having these horrible weapons that could damage Americans and people all over the world," Lingle declared.

It was jarring not because of the content of her statement, but because she's never gone out of her way to share these views with her own constituents.

Far from providing the leadership she credits to Bush, she's been invisible in the spirited local debate over the war with Iraq and homeland security. Why the eagerness to be so prominent nationally on issues she's skirted at home?

Clearly, part of the answer is that she must pay some GOP dues if she expects support from the White House and congressional Republicans on issues important to Hawai'i.

She campaigned on promises to win the cooperation of national Republican leaders, and she needs to deliver — especially on Native Hawaiian recognition, which has been frustrated by Republican presidents and lawmakers since the early 1980s.

Lingle's new partisan profile in Washington ties her own political fate locally to that of the national GOP in ways she's scrupulously avoided in the past.

When she runs for re-election in 2006, Lingle will be judged mostly by her success on her core issues from 2002 — improving education, fixing the economy and restoring honesty in government.

But if the war on terrorism stumbles and the national and local economies founder as a result, Democrats will have every right to hold Lingle to account for her unquestioning advocacy of the Bush agenda.

David Shapiro can be reached by e-mail at dave@volcanicash.net