Negative Campaigning Backfires in Oregon

Republican gubernatorial candidate loses lead after attacking Democratic opponent

OREGON was supposed to be one of the few states around the country this fall where Republicans had a very good chance of capturing a state governorship. Popular Democratic incumbent Neil Goldschmidt had surprised everyone by deciding not to run for reelection. And the GOP candidate is the state's well-known attorney general, who has a blue-ribbon background and solid reputation as a thoughtful moderate - just the kind of Republican (such as Sens. Mark Hatfield and Bob Packwood) that Oregonians like. But the gubernatorial race here has become a first-class contest with polls showing the race a dead heat as the campaign moves into its final weeks. Though Attorney General Dave Frohnmayer had a comfortable seven-point lead a month ago, Democratic Secretary of State Barbara Roberts has virtually closed that gap.

Both Mr. Frohnmayer and Ms. Roberts are highly experienced and well regarded. Many Oregonians agree with Richard Sept, editorial-page editor of the Medford Mail Tribune, that ``either of the candidates would make an outstanding governor.''

Frohnmayer served six years as state representative and then a decade as attorney general. He helped send cult leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh packing, collected $2.1 billion in overcharges from Exxon, and won six of the seven cases he argued before the United States Supreme Court.

Roberts was the first woman in Oregon history to become majority leader of the state House of Representatives, and as secretary of state she cracked down on campaign violators, including fellow Democrats. In her reelection bid two years ago, she won in all 36 Oregon counties.

On issues and political philosophy, the candidates are at the center of the spectrum. Both are pro-choice on abortion. Each sees the need for more state support for public education, including a first-time-ever sales tax and local property-tax reform. (Oregon is third from the bottom among the states in support for education and has the fourth-highest property taxes in the country.)

Both candidates would build on the ``Children's Agenda'' of Governor Goldschmidt; both favor Oregon's proposed health-care rationing plan, which has gotten national attention, and both oppose tax credits for private education.

Roberts has been helped by the presence on the ballot of independent candidate Al Mobley, who is very conservative on the issues, especially abortion.

``Ninety-nine percent of Mobley's support comes out of Frohnmayer's hide,'' says Oregon State University political scientist William Lunch, referring to the third candidate's 7 percent in a recent poll commissioned by the Portland Oregonian, the state's largest newspaper. ``If Mobley weren't in the race, Frohnmayer would be having a walk.''

Also contributing to Roberts's surge in the polls is the reaction to a blitz of negative ads launched in midsummer by Frohnmayer's campaign in which the attorney general scored his opponent on crime issues. The reason most cited by people in the Oregon Poll for leaning toward Roberts was that they didn't like Frohnmayer's negative ads.

Oregon's population is small, (3 million people and 1 million voters), and many people know candidates and elected officials personally. So when a candidate here suddenly seems to change image, it can be confusing if not off-putting.

``Frohnmayer is a decent, very thoughtful, gentle man, and his ads have been hard-edged and quite frankly unbelievable,'' says Professor Lunch. ``So people who know Dave say, `Gee, I look at these ads and I don't know this guy.' ''

Frohnmayer appears to have gotten the message. He fired his California advertising agency last week, citing ``a certain amount of stridency'' in the ads. At a debate in his hometown of Medford the other night, he and Roberts were exceedingly pleasant to one another, and their differences on most issues were slight.

Still, there are clear differences in background and positions. Frohnmayer has degrees from Harvard (Phi Beta Kappa), Oxford (Rhodes scholar), and the University of California at Berkeley. He worked in a prestigious San Francisco law firm and in federal government before returning to Oregon to teach law and then enter politics. His brother John heads the National Endowment for the Arts.

Roberts, who is still chipping away at her bachelor's degree, got her first political experience lobbying lawmakers on behalf of handicapped children (her son was diagnosed as autistic), then worked her way up on school boards and county commissions. Her husband is a state senator.

Frohnmayer's backers include industry groups (especially big timber companies) and law enforcement officials around the state. Roberts has the support of environmental groups, labor unions, and women's organizations.

Roberts favors a ballot initiative that would close the Trojan nuclear power plant until a safe way to store spent nuclear fuel can be found; Frohnmayer opposes the proposal. On the much-publicized timber/spotted owl issue, Frohnmayer emphasizes the need for continued timber supplies; Roberts is more inclined to look for ways to retrain loggers and mill workers.

Roberts may have the momentum in the polls, but Frohnmayer still has double his opponent's campaign treasury. Since registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 49-38 percent, he is likely to need it over the next four weeks.

In the other top Oregon race, a recent poll commissioned by the Oregonian showed Democratic challenger Harry Lonsdale just six points behind US Sen. Mark Hatfield. The Republican veteran was 36 points ahead in August.

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