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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Aiona faces difficult road to succeed Lingle

By David Shapiro

Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona used Saturday's Republican convention to step out from Gov. Linda Lingle's shadow and provide the first real glimpse of the candidate he'll be in the election to succeed her.

He showed he can match up with likely Democratic rivals Neil Abercrombie and Mufi Hannemann in giving a stemwinder of a speech, lashing out at Democratic "machine" politics and pitching Republican values of limited government, lower taxes and personal freedom.

But the convention also pointed out the challenges Aiona faces in re-creating the delicate voting majority of Republicans, independents and moderate Democrats that Lingle assembled in 2002 to become Hawai'i's first Republican governor in 40 years.

The issues are eerily similar; as in 2002, today's voters are frustrated by a sour economy, failing public schools and a sputtering state government that can't seem to solve our chronic problems.

The difference is Democrats controlled everything in 2002, and Lingle was able to point fingers their way and persuade voters to try something different.

Now, Republicans have controlled the fifth floor of the Capitol for eight years, and any fingers Aiona points at the Democratic Legislature for the gridlock during that time will be pointed right back at him.

Lingle has been politically generous with Aiona, giving him more visibility than any previous lieutenant governor and referring to their partnership as the Lingle-Aiona administration.

Such prominence leaves him little choice but to run on the administration's record at a time when Lingle's approval ratings are at an all-time low after more than a year of stalemates over the state budget and school furloughs.

The low approval isn't unique to Lingle. Being governor is a tough job and occupants of the office tend to wear out their welcome after two terms. Lingle's Democratic predecessors John Waihee and Ben Cayetano also left office with poor approval ratings.

It leaves a difficult challenge for a lieutenant governor looking to succeed the boss. Cayetano followed Waihee only after Pat Saiki and Frank Fasi split the opposition and enabled him to win without a majority. Cayetano's lieutenant governor, Mazie Hirono, lost to Lingle.

To overcome Hawai'i's Democratic majority, Lingle downplayed parties in 2002 and attracted moderate Democrats and independents by portraying herself as a pragmatic problem-solver who could make government work.

The Republicans' lack of progress after eight years makes it tough for Aiona to argue the same case. The GOP platform he'll run on is a one-page statement that eschews specific positions on issues in favor of a broad recitation of Republican values.

Lingle took pains in 2002 to avoid stirring the pot on contentious social issues such as abortion and gay unions, while Aiona is an outspoken religious conservative who's made social issues central to his campaign.

Aiona's strong religious views will draw out some faith-based voters who usually stay home and attract religious Democrats like former state Sen. David Matsuura, who introduced Aiona at the GOP convention.

Talk of religion, however, will likely scare off many moderate Democrats and independents who were key to putting Lingle over the top.

Republicans are hoping it'll be a net gain, but the political reality is that no Hawai'i Republican has ever won statewide office by pressing a conservative agenda.

The GOP takes hope from the success Charles Djou seems to be having with Republican themes in the congressional special election, but in a three-way race with the Democrats split, he can win with less than 40 percent of the vote.

In a one-on-one general election, 40 percent puts you on the short end of a landslide. To win then, Aiona and Djou would both need to follow Lingle's 2002 example and reach beyond the Republican core.