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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Political season heats up with Abercrombie's bid

By David Shapiro

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Congressman Neil Abercrombie speaks at the Democratic Party Headquarters in Kaka'ako. He announced that he will run for governor in 2010, changing the landscape for other ambitious local politicians.


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If it seems early for the 2010 Hawai'i election campaign to start sizzling, it only points up what a pivotal year it's likely to be.

Two major candidates have already announced for governor Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona for the Republicans and U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie for the Democrats.

Republican Councilman Charles Djou has announced for Abercrombie's House seat in the 1st Congressional District, and former Democratic U.S. Rep. Ed Case may enter the race soon.

Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann and state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa are possible candidates for either office. Senate Majority Leader Gary Hooser has announced for lieutenant governor, with Democratic Party Chairman Brian Schatz also showing interest in the race, as are term-limited Honolulu councilmen Donovan Dela Cruz and Rod Tam.

If Hannemann resigns to run for governor, it could open a spirited competition for mayor among the likes of Councilmen Duke Bainum and Todd Apo and city Managing Director Kirk Caldwell.

The jockeying goes beyond 2010 to 2012, when U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka comes up for re-election at 88, with his seat expected to draw the interest of Republican Gov. Linda Lingle and possibly Democrats like Case and Hannemann.

The governor's office is the prize in 2010, as Democrats fight to get it back after losing it up to Republicans for eight years for the first time since 1962.

Aiona has many attractive qualities, will be very well-funded and won't be the slouch many Democrats assume if he runs the kind of smart, big-tent campaign Lingle did in 2002 and 2006.

But there's no question the momentum is swinging the Democrats' way after the Obama-mania that swept Hawai'i last year and the party's steady gains in the Legislature during the Lingle years.

Abercrombie was shrewd to announce early and cast his run for governor as a continuation of the popular Obama's campaign of hope and change.

Hannemann has also tried to snuggle up to the Hawai'i-born president, but he didn't throw his support to Obama until after Obama had pretty much wrapped up his nomination fight against Hillary Clinton.

Abercrombie, who knew Obama's parents in college, was one of his first supporters in Congress, hitting the road to campaign for him in the earliest primaries and caucuses. Abercrombie was one of a small group including the likes of Oprah invited to celebrate at the White House on inauguration night.

It's hard to imagine that Abercrombie won't get the bulk of support from the extensive local Obama campaign organization he helped build last year and at least the tacit approval of the president himself.

His challenge is whether a candidate who has been a mainstay of the Democratic establishment can sell himself as an agent of change.

Hannemann could be a commanding force if he enters the race, with momentum and a revved-up organization from his re-election last year, access to ample funds and broad support from unions and other interest groups.

Hannemann has long desired to serve in Washington, and many mainstream Democrats hope he'll stand aside for Abercrombie next year and wait for the 2012 Senate race to keep the seat out of the hands of Lingle or the independent Case.

But without a guarantee that Akaka will retire, the governor's office has to look like a piece of low-hanging fruit to Hannemann just as it did to mayors Frank Fasi and Jeremy Harris before him.

Hanabusa has been the Legislature's brightest light for a decade, but she's lost two races for Congress and must weigh her chances against more experienced candidates carefully before risking the powerful position she already holds.

David Shapiro, a veteran Hawai'i journalist, can be reached by e-mail at dave@volcanicash.net. His columns are archived at www.volcanicash.net. Read his daily blog at blogs.honoluluadvertiser.com.