HONOLULU - It's a once-in-a-generation occurrence: a competitive U.S. Senate race in Hawaii.
That's exactly what may be shaping up as two Democrats, Rep. Mazie Hirono and former Rep. Ed Case, square off in a primary today for the chance to take on former Gov. Linda Lingle, the likely Republican Senate nominee.
Hawaii Senate races typically aren't very competitive because it's a solidly Democratic state with a history of letting incumbents keep their jobs. This contest is the first since 1976 without an incumbent running, and whoever wins will become just the sixth senator in the state's 53-year history, replacing retiring Democratic Sen. Daniel Akaka.
The outcome could also help determine the balance of power in Congress. Republicans need to pick up four seats to regain control of the Senate.
Lingle has four primary opponents, but she was expected to easily defeat them today and put up a strong fight for the Senate seat. The 59-year-old is well-known after eight years as governor and, before that, eight years as Maui County mayor. While the state firmly backed its native son, Democrat Barack Obama, for president in 2008 and is certain to do so again, independents make up roughly one-third of the electorate and there's no telling how they'll vote in November.
"This is a winnable race," insists Lingle, who grew up in a Jewish family of Democrats but declared herself Republican when she first ran for the Maui City Council more than 30 years ago.
She'll need to cobble together a broad coalition of voters across the political spectrum to win, and do it with Obama at the top of the ticket. Obama, a Democrat, got two-thirds of the vote here four years ago.
While Lingle has twice won statewide, those victories came in years with no presidential race, though Democrats in other races did well in Hawaii then, too. She's also fighting against history: Hawaii hasn't had a Republican senator since Hiram Fong, one of the state's original senators.
Still, the former governor has advantages: She's raised $4.4 million so far and had $2 million in available cash as of late July, with more money raised and on hand than Hirono and Case combined.
Just one of Lingle's Republican challengers has raised any money, less than $34,000.
Democrats acknowledge that the race will be far from a shoo-in for them - regardless of who wins today.
The Democratic primary features a rematch of sorts between Hirono, 64, who came to the United States from Japan at age 8, and Case, 59, who was born on the Big Island and traces his Hawaii roots to 1896, when his great-grandparents moved to Honolulu from Kansas.
Hirono, the first Asian immigrant to serve in Congress, beat Case in a Democratic primary for Hawaii governor in 2002, then lost in the general election to Lingle, who served for eight years.
A poll released last month by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, four days before early voting began, found Case trailing Hirono by double-digits. It also said Lingle would be an underdog to either Democrat.
All three candidates are emphasizing independence, moderate views and bipartisanship as they don lei, "talk story" with Hawaii locals and skip among the Pacific archipelago's islands to drum up votes.
"Nobody asks me: 'Are you a liberal?' " Hirono says. "They say, 'How can you help me?' How can we work together? That's how I proceed." She underscored that image in an ad featuring her with Rep. Don Young, an Alaska Republican.
Already looking to the general election in November, Hirono argues that Lingle's efforts to play up bipartisanship and play down her GOP ties are part of an "extreme makeover" that doesn't jibe with her time as governor.
Lingle takes issue with that characterization.
Case, for his part, has pitched himself as more moderate than Hirono and therefore a better bet to defeat Lingle. He said Hawaii has shown that it doesn't have a problem voting for a homegrown Republican.
"National Republicans know full well that Hirono is not going to be able to earn the votes of that growing portion of the electorate," Case said. "They feel that that gives them an opportunity for a pickup."