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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 28, 2006

Akaka, Case trade barbs before party's faithful

 •  Akaka vs. Case
Read up on the race between U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka and U.S. Rep. Ed Case
in the Democratic primary for the Senate in September.
State political conventions photo gallery
 •  Republicans celebrate today's 'better Hawai'i'

By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer

Rep. Neal Abercrombie, right, and his wife, Nancy Caraway, were among admirers who greeted U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka yesterday after his speech to delegates attending the Hawai'i Democratic Party Convention at the Hilton Hawaiian Village.

JOAQUIN SIOPACK | The Honolulu Advertiser

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U.S. Rep. Ed Case, center, received warm applause yesterday following his speech at the Hawai'i Democratic Convention. His wife, Audrey, is at far left, while state House Speaker Calvin Say is at far right.

JOAQUIN SIOPACK | The Honolulu Advertiser

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It wasn't only Democratic Party regulars yesterday who attended the party's state convention. Fauesala Kesi, 13 months, clung to the shoulder of his father, Silau'ulu Kesi, during the proceedings at the Hilton Hawaiian Village.

JOAQUIN SIOPACK | The Honolulu Advertiser

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U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka told Democrats at the party's state convention in Waikiki yesterday that Hawai'i needs his experience and wisdom in Washington, D.C., while his opponent in the Senate primary, U.S. Rep. Ed Case, challenged them to reach out across party lines and build a new governing consensus.

Their speeches were anticipated because it was the first time Akaka and Case had appeared in front of Democratic loyalists on the same stage since Case stunned the party in January by announcing he would run against the senator. Many of the party's core activists wanted to know whether Akaka, at 81, still has the vigor for a tough campaign, while others were curious about how Case, 53, dealt with the inevitably cool reception from the party's establishment.

While the party has officially stayed neutral, there was no mistaking Akaka's popularity yesterday.

U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, the party's most commanding figure, introduced Akaka as a senator with moral courage who opposed the war in Iraq from the start and who would fight for justice for Hawaiians through a federal recognition bill. "I want to continue being his partner in the United States Senate," Inouye said to a spirited ovation.

State House Majority Leader Marcus Oshiro, D-39th (Wahiawa), pounded a taiko drum as dozens of cheering, sign-waving Akaka supporters marched to the stage at the Hilton Hawaiian Village for the senator's remarks.

MAJOR ISSUES

Akaka said Democrats should ask the Bush administration whether the war in Iraq was warranted, whether national security has been used as a pretext for weakening privacy and civil liberties, and whether tax breaks have mainly helped the wealthy. The senator did not mention Case by name, but his campaign has tried to draw distinctions with Case on these issues, since the congressman has said he would likely have supported the initial decision to go to war, voted to extend the USA Patriot Act, and backed capital gains and alternative minimum tax reductions favored by the White House.

Although the senator was speaking of the differences between Democrats and Republicans, he was also hinting at the moderate Case when he asked delegates to compare loyalties and voting records.

"Unfortunately, there are some Republicans who have usurped the language of Democrats, just as there are some Democrats today who hide behind labels like fiscal conservative," Akaka said. "They speak of things like tax relief for working and middle-class families when they really mean trickle-down economics. But you know that trickle-down economics by any other name is still a tax break for the rich, and you also know that there is very little that eventually trickles down to the rest of us.

"That's why I believe that Hawai'i needs all the security, experience and wisdom that we can muster in Washington, D.C."

LITTLE FANFARE

The audience was smaller, and much more sedate, when Case took the stage less than an hour later. The congressman was introduced by state Senate President Robert Bunda, D-22nd (North Shore, Wahiawa), with no fanfare and he received respectful but not enthusiastic applause.

Case challenged Democrats to confront the party's contradictions and lead what he described as the increasing majority of Americans who see party affiliation with diminishing importance. "We speak of our commitment to defending our country and securing our homeland, yet too many Americans still rightly or wrongly view us otherwise," he said. "We speak the rhetoric of economic vitality, yet too many Americans rightly or wrongly see contradictions in our actions.

"We highlight the virtues of tolerance and big picture, big-tent inclusion, yet too many sense too often a growing intolerance and not-so-subtle exclusion that leaves some of us feeling like unwelcome strangers in our own land," he said. "We call ourselves the party of the people, of the majority of Americans, yet we too often allow ourselves to be co-opted by narrow perspectives or special-interest few.

"We talk about our obligation to the future, but too often we dwell in the past."

TEST FOR AKAKA

Akaka's advisers believed the convention speech was an important one for the senator, who has not been truly tested in a reelection battle since he beat Republican Pat Saiki for the Senate 16 years ago. According to SurveyUSA, a New Jersey firm that does monthly tracking polls, Akaka's job approval rating has fallen to its lowest point in a year following a month in which he was described by Time magazine as among the five worst senators, and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights urged the Senate to reject his Hawaiian federal recognition bill.

Akaka's approval rating had been around 60 percent since May 2005, according to SurveyUSA, but it dropped to 50 percent this month. Incumbent politicians are typically considered vulnerable when their approval rating falls below 50 percent.

SIGNS OF HOSTILITY

Case had expected some Democrats at the convention would be upset about his campaign and there were a few signs of hostility yesterday. At a morning session with delegates from Maui and the Big Island, Case faced heated questions about Iraq, the Patriot Act and even whether he was really a Democrat. Others passed out stickers that read "4 In 6," derisively referring to Case's campaigns for governor, two special elections for Congress to replace the late Patsy Mink, and the Senate in the past six years.

"I think this anger over the war in Iraq is pervasive," said Lance Holter, a Maui delegate and the political and conservation chair of the Sierra Club's Hawai'i chapter. "Ed is just caught up in this."

Kekoa McClellan, who is studying international relations at Hawai'i Pacific University, said Case was "unwilling to stand with the Democrats on difficult issues."

But other delegates, including some who spoke privately, said Case has been reflective of the party's mainstream on the war and on extending the Patriot Act. Case's best applause line during his speech was when he mentioned the risk to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska from oil drilling, which Akaka supports because it is favored by many Native Alaskans for economic reasons.

John Buckstead, the chairman of Big Island Democrats, said he has not taken sides in the primary but believes the competition is healthy for the party. "I think it's exciting that there is a race," he said. "We should welcome it."

Reach Derrick DePledge at ddepledge@honoluluadvertiser.com.