HONOLULU — After a bitter campaign marked by mudslinging and contentious divisions over race, religion and gay rights, two longtime political rivals in Hawaii meet in a primary Saturday to decide which Democrat will try to recapture the governor's seat from Republican hands after eight years.
Former U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie and former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, who first faced each other in a primary 24 years ago, are competing in a tight race for the chance to succeed Gov. Linda Lingle in President Barack Obama's birth state.
Term limits prevent Lingle, who became Hawaii's first Republican governor in 40 years when she was elected, from running again. That leaves open the door for Democrats in November to possibly regain control of one of the most blue states in the country, which gave Obama 72 percent of the presidential vote two years ago.
Democrats also are looking to retake the congressional seat Abercrombie left after 19 years to run for governor, although that race won't be settled until November. Republican U.S. Rep. Charles Djou, who won a May special election for Congress, and Democratic state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa hold vast fundraising and name recognition advantages heading into their party's primaries Saturday, and if they win they'd face each other in the general election.
In the Democratic governor's race, there's no love lost between the 74-year-old Abercrombie and the 56-year-old Hannemann, who first faced off in 1986 in a congressional primary, won by Hannemann, in which he attacked Abercrombie for being soft on drugs and claimed that he "enjoyed marijuana." Abercrombie said those assertions were untrue; Hannemann later lost the general election.
This year's campaign has been filled with personal attacks and comparisons of their character, ethnicity, experience and views on gay rights.
Abercrombie blasted Hannemann's campaign following a radio ad by Hannemann supporters that claimed Abercrombie is "unacceptable" because he doesn't hold "traditional Christian values." Hannemann is Mormon, and Abercrombie's campaign has said he was "confirmed as an Episcopalian."
Abercrombie backs same-sex civil unions, while Hannemann has said he would have vetoed civil union legislation that passed the Legislature earlier this year but was vetoed by Lingle.
Hannemann also has drawn criticism for telling a carpenters' union "I look like you," a reference to Hannemann's Samoan-German ancestry; Abercrombie is white. A Hannemann campaign brochure emphasized that he was born in Hawaii and Abercrombie in New York.
Mudslinging between the candidates could damage the winner's chances of success in the Nov. 2 general election against the Republican nominee. In the Republican primary, Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona holds a vast advantage over attorney John Carroll in fundraising, campaign organization and advertising.
Despite the Democratic candidates' rhetoric over their character and experience, they share similar plans to improve public education, promote renewable energy and build Honolulu's rail system.
But Hannemann has kept the pressure on by saying Abercrombie is making unfunded campaign promises, received a low rating from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and is trying to "retire to the governor's job." The Hannemann brochure also mockingly praised Abercrombie for winning a beard contest.
Abercrombie has accused the Hannemann of manipulating Honolulu's proposed rail line for political purposes and then abandoning the project by resigning from the mayor's office halfway into his second term to run for governor.
Abercrombie, a friend of Obama's father from their days at the University of Hawaii, picked up on Obama's theme of change by calling for "A New Day in Hawaii" in his platform. Obama has stayed out of the race, but both candidates say they knew him when he was young and went by "Barry" instead of "Barack."
"The people of Hawaii will have an opportunity to reject politics-as-usual when they cast their ballots," Abercrombie said. "I am confident that the people will move Hawaii in a new direction."
Hannemann has countered that Abercrombie's message of change doesn't ring true after so many years in Washington.
"I'm not afraid to make tough decisions," Hannemann said. "I'm never going to be someone who sits behind my desk and becomes invisible."
Polls have shown Abercrombie in the lead, but Hannemann had nearly three times as much cash left in his treasury as of Sept. 3, according to campaign finance reports. In all, Hannemann has raised about $3.5 million to Abercrombie's $3 million.