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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, October 31, 2004

Political landscape changing in Hawai'i

By Derrick DePledge and Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser Capitol Bureau

KAPOLEI — Brenda Mersberg-Afoa unfolded her chair on the damp grass along the sideline early yesterday, a front-row seat for her daughter's soccer match.

Alexandra Kerry, daughter of presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, greets Robert Lillis of Kapolei and his daughter, Ana, 9, on Palolo Street. Kerry was in town this weekend to campaign for her father.

Rebecca Breyer • The Honolulu Advertiser

For many young parents on the growing west side, weekend mornings are precious, a break from work and traffic and school and the pressure to make all the small details of life fit together.

When Mersberg-Afoa thinks about politics, she worries about the things that matter most to her family. Traffic. Overcrowded schools. The spread of "ice" and crime. Party labels are interesting, but not always relevant.

"I think Hawai'i is changing," the benefits coordinator from Makakilo said.

The U.S. presidential race in Hawai'i may be decided by Democratic voter turnout and whether undecided Japanese- and Filipino-American voters break for President Bush or Sen. John Kerry in the next two days. A larger question, though, is whether Hawai'i's political landscape has changed because of voters like Mersberg-Afoa who no longer identify with the state's Democratic tradition.

The two Hawai'i polls that found Bush and Kerry deadlocked, turning Hawai'i into a battleground state and leading Vice President Dick Cheney and former Vice President Al Gore to campaign here, could either be a momentary detour for Democrats or confirmation that the state is becoming more conservative.

Mark Yonamine of 'Aiea and his son, Cade Yonamine, 5, worked on a Bush-Cheney sign at the Hawai'i Convention Center in Waikiki yesterday afternoon. Vice President Dick Cheney will be in Hawai'i today.

Rebecca Breyer • The Honolulu Advertiser

"I've been telling people for months not to take Hawai'i for granted," said Mazie Hirono, the former lieutenant governor who lost to Linda Lingle two years ago, the first time a Republican was elected governor in four decades. "If Hawai'i was that Democratic, I would be governor."

While state Democrats are outwardly confident of a Kerry victory, some are a little shaken by the rapid turn of events over the past week and are looking closely at whether all the attention on the presidential race will have an influence on state House and Senate campaigns. Democrats expect to keep their majority in the state Legislature, but Lingle has been much more aggressive in the past few weeks about linking Bush to the state's Republican candidates, walking in several districts the GOP believes may be ripe.

Republicans need to pick up three House seats to break the Democrats veto-proof majority, and Republicans hope that Cheney's appearance tonight with his wife, Lynne, at the Hawai'i Convention Center may provide the last push.

"I think people here know they don't like what's going on," said state Rep. Mark Moses, R-40th (Makakilo, Kapolei, Royal Kunia), who was out waving campaign signs yesterday morning. "They want to see change."

Democrats believe the national attention to Hawai'i, along with their own telephone banks and canvassing, may spark higher turnout among the party's loyal union and progressive base. Young people and new voters who might otherwise have chosen not to vote may also come out if they know it could make a difference.

Hawai'i citizens stood in long lines at Honolulu Hale yesterday morning to cast their votes. Yesterday was the last day to vote absentee.

Rebecca Breyer • The Honolulu Advertiser

State House Majority Leader Scott Saiki, D-22nd (McCully, Pawa'a), said he does not believe the presidential election will have much impact on voters in state races, which are driven mostly by local concerns.

"My sense is that voters are very independent," he said. "They're not going to follow endorsements. They're making up their own minds."

With Lingle now so visible, and because of her previous pledge to target the House, the election could be a referendum on her political power. Republicans lost seats in the Legislature when Lingle won in 2002.

The state GOP has provided logistical support and encouragement to Republican congressional candidates, but Lingle has said it is more important for Hawai'i voters to re-elect Bush. Polls have shown U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawai'i, leading former journalist Dalton Tanonaka, and U.S. Rep. Ed Case, D-Hawai'i, ahead of Hono-

lulu City Councilman Mike Gabbard. U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye, D-Hawai'i, is expected to beat his Republican challenger, Cam Cavasso.

Gore's visit to Farrington High School on Friday night, and weekend appearances by Kerry's daughter, Alexandra, may also convince ambivalent Democrats that more is at stake than usual.

National Democrats said they pivoted quickly toward Hawai'i because of the polls and the lesson of the 2000 presidential election, when Gore won the popular vote but lost in the Electoral College. Hawai'i has four electoral votes.

"We learned in the last election that every single vote matters and every electoral vote matters. And we respect the voters of Hawai'i and are working hard to earn their votes on Tuesday," said Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

Kerry's daughter made several stops on O'ahu yesterday, including a social event with young professionals at Chai's Island Bistro at the Aloha Tower Marketplace. The Advertiser's Hawai'i Poll found that people 35 and younger were about evenly divided between Kerry and Bush.

"Their future is completely affected by what's happening right now in this election," Kerry said, contending that her father is stronger than Bush on education and the environment.

"When I watch the behavior of our president, obviously I'm biased, but I don't believe him," Kerry said. "And I feel like growing up with my dad, I've seen him. Public service is something that has been part of his soul and his body for his whole life."

Don Clegg, a political consultant and pollster who has helped a number of key Democrats, said Gore's appearance at Farrington was targeted at Filipino-American voters who might be leaning toward Bush. He said Democrats would have sent Gore into Mililani or 'Ewa or East Honolulu if they were trying to reach independents.

"If they want to sway independents, particularly in Kerry's case, you go to Hawai'i Kai because that's where they have less support," Clegg said.

Eddie Flores Jr., a restaurateur and Republican activist, said Filipino-Americans could be an important ethnic bloc in Hawai'i this election. The Hawai'i Poll found that more than half of Filipino-Americans interviewed planned to support Bush and they had the highest number of undecided voters after those of Japanese descent.

"I feel if Bush is going to win, Filipinos are going to have to carry the weight, and I think Bush will win it," Flores said.

Several voters said the war on terror and in Iraq is their overriding concern, whether they support Bush or Kerry, and Friday's news that 1,000 Hawai'i Marines were likely headed to Afghanistan was another reminder of the state's connection to the conflicts.

Jeff Esmond, a Kahalu'u pension consultant, said he may go to the convention center tonight to protest. "Bush is sending our kids to die," he said.

Kalei Kam, an independent contractor from Kane'ohe, said she supports Bush because she does not think the country should change leaders during a war. "I feel very strongly about how he has handled the war," she said.

Kam believes the Cheney and Gore visits would "wake people up."

Mersberg-Afoa, who said she would support Bush, said the deployment of thousands of Hawai'i-based troops over the past year has brought more immediacy to the war and might have an influence Tuesday.

"I think it all hits closer to home now that we are seeing more of our soldiers being called up," she said.

Reach Derrick DePledge at ddepledge@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8070.