ASHLAND, ORE. — PRESIDENT Bush's visit to Oregon today is designed to emphasize his commitment to protecting American jobs in an age of heightened environmentalism. So is Bill Clinton's.
The difference, according to political experts here, is that the vote quest is more of a long shot for Bush since Oregon - which went for Michael Dukakis in 1988 - is going through economic and demographic changes favorable to Democrats.
Medford, the small mill and logging town where the Bush campaign was to set down late this afternoon, is in the middle of spotted-owl country. This is the region where hundreds of timber jobs are threatened by tree-cutting restrictions designed to protect owl's habitat under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Governor Clinton is scheduled to meet with timber families as well, following a speech on economics in downtown Portland - a city that has seen disruptive demonstrations during Bush visits. Both Bush and Clinton are aware of recent state statistics showing that employment levels in wood-product industries have been at their lowest since such data were first collected in 1947.
"I think it's no secret that jobs are on everyone's mind," says state Republican chairman Craig Berkman, who notes that average per capita income for Oregon wage earners has declined in the past two years despite increases in tourism and international trade. "There's compelling information that people are interested in a better balance in how we husband our resources and also take care of our people."
Both candidates have made overtures to timber workers. Bush last week ordered federal agencies to accelerate salvage-logging (the cutting of dead trees, which provide prime fuel for forest fires) by circumventing environmental studies and citizen appeals.
Oregon congressman Bob Smith (R), who represents this area, estimates that the move will save 5,000 jobs - a significant figure at a time when mills are being shut down, and court rulings related to spotted-owl habitat have halted logging on almost all federal land in western Oregon and Washington State.
In his talk to timber workers today, Bush also was expected to call for an easing of the Endangered Species Act, as have Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan and Oregon's two Republican senators, Mark Hatfield and Bob Packwood.
In response to a request from the AFL-CIO and the Western Council of Industrial Workers, Clinton, if elected, has promised to convene a "timber summit" within 100 days of his inauguration. Such a meeting would bring together environmentalists, unions, timber-industry officials, and politicians in hopes of finding a resolution to a problem largely fought in court.
"This has been very warmly received by the timber industry," says Oregon Democratic Party chairman Wayne Anderson, also an official of the United Steel Workers of America. "It's certainly something that the present administration has failed to do."
BUSH campaign officials see timber jobs as a "wedge issue" that may give them leverage in the Pacific Northwest. Oregon State University political scientist William Lunch sees this as a slim possibility in a state whose "blue-collar workers have gotten clobbered in this recession. If you look beneath the horse-race numbers - which are usually misleading - Bush is in considerable trouble in Oregon," said Professor Lunch.
Seen more broadly, political changes in Oregon and Washington appear to be moving in the Democrats' favor. Mr. Berkman notes that while the regional economy traditionally rested on a "three-legged stool" - timber, agriculture, and tourism - there now are increasing numbers of jobs in high-tech industries and Pacific Rim trade.
At the same time, most people moving into the Northwest have no ties to natural-resource industries and, therefore, are more likely to be interested in preserving an environment that remains relatively pristine.
Still, Berkman says, Oregon in 1990 was the only state in which Republicans wrested control of a state legislative body. And there is another reason why Bush must woo states like Oregon, says Berkman: "If California is seen as going to Clinton, Bush will have to attract smaller states."