He’s raised the most money. He’s got the most experience. His name recognition is sky high. Half a million people follow him on Twitter. And most polls show him in the lead, some by double digits.

He is a candidate who graduated from Iolani and Harvard and was a Fulbright Scholar — a candidate “who provided 36 years of public service” to the people of Hawaii, as a recent campaign ad put it.

So, why isn’t Mufi Hannemann a lock to win the Democratic primary for the 2nd Congressional District?

Hannemann, the former Honolulu mayor and Council member, may well pull off a win. His latest advertisement is milking his recent endorsement by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and The Maui News.

But Hannemann has been eclipsed by his closest rival, Honolulu City Council member Tulsi Gabbard, when it comes to recent fundraising reports. He’s got less cash on hand than Gabbard and had to lend himself $150,000.

After polling initially above 50 percent, his numbers have dropped dramatically, according to a Civil Beat poll in June. No wonder the Gabbard campaign thinks it has the wind at its back.

Hannemann, 58, is still tantalizingly close to achieving an ambition he has had since at least 1986, when as a young man he made his first-ever run for office, a run for Congress — the 1st Congressional seat, actually.

Hannemann won the Democratic primary that year, lost the special election to fill Cec Heftel’s seat (Neil Abercrombie won that race, allowing him to serve for just a few months) and lost the general to Republican Pat Saiki. Four years later, he lost a race for the 2nd District to Patsy Mink.

If he can get past Gabbard and four other Democrats on Aug. 11, however, Hannemann seems a shoo-in for the Nov. 6 general election, as the two Republicans running in the primary are unknown candidates who have yet to report raising any contributions. Any money from national Republicans and PACs is likely to be thrown toward Charles Djou in his effort to claim back his seat from U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa.

Hannemann would likely be easily re-elected to the House, too (short-termer Djou is the only congressional incumbent from Hawaii to lose re-election), and be a frontrunner someday to replace Daniel K. Inouye in the U.S. Senate.

But if he loses, Hannemann risks being branded a three-time loser for Congress just two years after a crushing defeat to Abercrombie in the race for governor.

Is this Mufi’s last chance?

Got Mufi?

The Hannemann campaign declined our interview request for this story.

To be more precise, I never heard back from deputy campaign manager Tyler Dos Santos-Tam after I responded to his July 17 email asking what topics I wished to cover. Here’s what I wrote:

I don’t want to talk about the issues, which I think have been well covered.

I am interested in the personal side — how this is his third run for Congress, how he lost badly in his bid for governor, how another loss could end his political career, or how a win could be great vindication and the beginning of a new chapter. I want to talk to him as well about the strong support he has among many, but also strong criticism from people like Abercrombie, Case and Cayetano.

Hannemann is sort of like Barack Obama or George W. Bush: You either love him or hate him.

He’s got big-time labor support and the backing of tourism executives. Bankers, developers and shippers have donated to him in large amounts. The past three Maui mayors want him elected.

But Gov. Abercrombie is not a fan. Neither are Ed Case and Ben Cayetano, who have denounced him as dangerous (though neither has adequately explained why).

While Hannemann announced his bid for Congress a year ago, he has appeared to be slow to hit full campaign stride compared with Gabbard, who has been aggressive on the trail.

He did not quit his Saturday radio show until early June, the latest date allowable under federal rules. And he didn’t step down from his lobbying gig for the tourism industry until last month. And he initially held off on joint appearances with other CD2 candidates, as if he felt it beneath him to share the same dais with such lesser souls.

Hannemann has been a frequent presence on the neighbor islands, though, which are in the 2nd District. Some of that has been in his capacity as head of the Hawaii Lodging & Tourism Association.

In recent weeks, Hannemann has participated in candidate forums, and he has handled himself ably. The down side, perhaps, is that he’s running against fresh-faced opponents like Gabbard and Esther Kiaaina. Standing or sitting next to them at forums, Hannemann looks awfully, familiarly tall.

A challenger like Kiaaina has also been able to underscore her years of experience working in D.C. for Case, Daniel Akaka and others. To some, it may seem dated that Hannemann worked in the Carter administration and was a White House Fellow during the Reagan administration.

Comparing, Deciding

Love him or hate him, arguments can be made that Hannemann was an effective mayor.

One may disagree with, say, kicking homeless out of parks or raising the general excise tax on Oahu to pay for rail. But that’s one definition of leadership. His view on his record, as posted on his campaign website, is worth reviewing.

He’s also a heck of a bon dancer.

But it’s instructive to recall that Hannemann almost didn’t make it to mayor, that he has lost nearly as many races as he has won, and how controversy has tainted some of his campaigns.

In the 1986 congressional race against Abercrombie, for example, Hannemann tried to cut his opponent down with charges of drug use.

Hannemann lost to Mayor Jeremy Harris in 2000. Four years later, he managed to keep Duke Bainum under 50 percent of the primary vote, forcing a runoff. He then prevailed in the general, but narrowly so — 49.3 percent to Bainum’s 48.8 percent.

Some speculated that Bainum’s loss had to do with a smear campaign targeted at his wife, who had provided care to an elderly man years before.

Who initiated the smears is unclear, but Hawaii Reporter reported heavily on allegations of mistreatment, as in this article that ran a few weeks before the November election. A few days after Bainum’s loss, Frank Bridgewater, then the editor of the Honolulu-Star Bulletin, said the story wasn’t valid. But lasting damage to Bainum’s campaign may have already been inflicted.

In 2010, in his unsuccessful race against old nemesis Abercrombie in the race for governor, Hannemann was widely criticized for a “Compare and Decide” mailer that sought to portray his opponent in an unfavorable light. The strategy backfired, as did Hannemann’s comments before the Carpenters Union when he said, “I can identify with you. When I look in the audience, I look like you, you look like me.”

Hannemann has not stooped to such low-ball politics this time around — at least, not publicly. He seems to be playing things safe. Indeed, when the Star-Advertiser said its poll showed Hannemann with a 10-point lead over Gabbard, Hannemann said, “It is clear that our campaign’s positive message is resonating with the voters.”

If Hannemann is elected to Congress this fall, any doubts about his political viability may finally be laid to rest. He is a very intelligent and educated man with a passion for service. And wouldn’t it be fun to seeing the 6-foot-7 Hannemann towering over John Boehner and company on the floor of the U.S. House?

But if he loses … well, maybe he can get a radio job spinning the oldies.

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