WASHINGTON — Rep. Colleen Hanabusa has simple advice for her fellow Democrats: “You cannot take Linda Lingle lightly.”

Hanabusa sat down with Civil Beat in her Washington office on Tuesday, shortly after Lingle, a Republican, confirmed that she is running for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Sen. Daniel Akaka.

Hanabusa had seriously considered entering the 2012 U.S. Senate race, too, but announced in late August that she would instead seek re-election in the 1st congressional district.

“I’ve always thought that it would be fun to run against Lingle,” Hanabusa said. “I tell people, probably no one knows Lingle as well as I do. I would never take her lightly. That’s the mistake that Democrats are making.”

Hanabusa was Hawaii Senate president during the time that Lingle was the state’s governor. Hanabusa calls Lingle an “extremely good politician” and a “formidable candidate” with an uncanny ability to connect with voters.

“The number of years that the Democrats were in complete control of the governorship and everything else, and she was able to break in,” Hanabusa said. “She was the first woman. She’s not from Hawaii… Everyone said a neighbor island mayor’s never going to win the governorship, and she did. There’s something about her that resonates.”

National political trackers are abuzz with the news of Lingle’s candidacy, which makes the U.S. Senate race in Hawaii a must-watch contest as the GOP tries to reclaim the Senate majority. And while national Democrats scramble to emphasize Lingle’s conservative Republican roots, Hanabusa says they are missing the point. Hawaii is brimming with Democrats, but Hawaii voters seriously consider factors other than party affiliation when casting ballots.

“People in D.C. have no clue about Hawaii politics,” Hanabusa said. “They have no idea what matters in Hawaii and how people identify with their elected officials… From what I know of the voters in Hawaii, voters in Hawaii are going to (decide): Who do they feel can best represent them, and who do they like?”

For Democrats, those questions will first be posed in an August 2012 primary. Voters will have to decide if they like former Congressman Ed Case or Congresswoman Mazie Hirono, both of whom are vying for the Democratic nomination in the Senate race. Akaka, 87, will retire at the end of next year.

Weighing heavy on some Democrats’ minds is the fact that Hirono lost to Lingle in a 2002 bid for governor after defeating Case in the Democratic primary.

“The real issue is going to be, unfortunately, the line-up is a repeat of 2002,” Hanabusa said. “If there’s anything I’m hearing, it’s like, ‘This is 2002 all over again.'”

Does that mean that Hanabusa thinks Hirono can’t win?

“Anybody can beat anybody with the necessary amount of hard work, getting the message out and defining who they are,” Hanabusa said. “Right now, both Mazie and Ed, they’ve got to go out there and they’ve got to define themselves, and they’ve got to win that public confidence. They’ve both got to tell people how they’re different (from one another) and how they’re better than Lingle.”

Hanabusa said she will support whichever Democratic candidate emerges, but also acknowledges that Case and Hirono are dramatically different.

“They’re very different people, very different candidates,” Hanabusa said. “The one thing that people should be — I don’t know if the word thankful is right — but one the things we Democrats do is we give you choices. And this is about as different a choice as you can have between the two of them.”

She said that voters should know that both Case and Hirono share “solid Democrat values” and the “fundamental principles” of the party.

“The one thing people should also recognize is that Republicans would be absolutely ecstatic to give Hawaii a hard time,” Hanabusa said. “Because, of course, in their minds it’s like a slap in the (Hawaii-born) president’s face. I think people have got to take this race extremely seriously.”

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