ASHLAND, ORE. — IN many ways, Oregon's United States Senate race parallels the contest for the presidency. It pits two very experienced politicians against each other - one stressing the need for change and blasting the record of the Reagan/Bush era, the other hammering on character issues and the alleged sins of an unproductive and, in some ways, corrupt Congress.
But in this state known for its maverick politicians, what so far is a very tight race has its own special characteristics as well. In a broader sense, political analysts here say, the race also illustrates demographic and political changes showing up across much of the West. (Anti-gay-rights measure, Page 6.)
The incumbent is Bob Packwood (R), who has been an effective legislator during four terms in the Senate. "His strong stands over a long career for certain principles - women's rights and abortion, lower taxes on economic productivity and free trade, support of Israel, and the advance of the Republican Party - have won him enthusiastic support," states The Almanac of American Politics. He is being challenged by Les AuCoin, who entered the US House of Representatives in 1975 as part of the "Watergate gener ation" of young Democrats.
Recent polls show the two in a virtual dead heat, despite the fact that Senator Packwood has a far-heftier campaign war chest and has been blanketing the state with anti-AuCoin television ads.
"That's got to be bad news for Packwood," says Oregon State University political scientist William Lunch. "He's got the airwaves full of very, very powerful attack ads, but he's hardly moved the poll numbers at all."
With several weeks to go before the election, however, no one can firmly predict the outcome.
There are some clear differences between the two on major issues. Representative AuCoin advocates a "public, progressively financed national health program" with a $700 billion price tag; Packwood supports "the current private-public partnership [with] employer-mandated coverage for the unemployed."
Packwood favors a constitutional balanced-budget amendment and a presidential line-item veto to bring down the federal deficit; AuCoin proposes to save "$1 trillion on the military over five years." Packwood, who used to be considered a friend by environmentalists, spends a lot of time telling loggers and mill workers that the Endangered Species Act should be amended to save jobs; AuCoin has worked to save jobs in spotted-owl country, too, but talks about preserving forest ecosystems and has been endorse d by the League of Conservation Voters. Similarities and differences
AuCoin would reform campaign financing with spending limits and curbs on political-action committees; Packwood wants term limits for federal office holders. While both are known as free-traders, only Packwood backs the North American Free Trade Agreement. Packwood supports the death penalty; AuCoin doesn't. Packwood backed the Gulf war; AuCoin didn't.
In other areas, the two are quite similar. Both are strongly pro-choice on abortion, and both have come out against Oregon's Proposition 9, which would forbid special government protection for the rights of homosexuals.
But it is their individual performance in a broader sense that is getting more attention in Oregon. Every chance he can, AuCoin talks about "Reagan-Bush-Packwood economics" which, he says, has led to record-breaking deficits, massive debt, and a recession. He notes Packwood's successful fund-raising activities over the years, much of it from big business.
Packwood attacks AuCoin's voting attendance record (86 percent, compared with his own 90 percent) and criticizes the Democrat for accepting speaking fees. He has made much of AuCoin's 81 overdrafts on the House of Representatives bank, totaling $61,000. (AuCoin has apologized and been cleared of any criminal wrongdoing.) Demographic and economic changes
"For Les AuCoin, a 17-year congressman, to attempt to portray himself as an `agent of change' and as a political opponent of the economic policies of the 1980s is disingenuous and unsupported by his voting record over the past decade," says Packwood campaign manager Elaine Franklin.
Aside from Packwood's ability to raise large amounts of money, AuCoin is at a further disadvantage because he depleted his campaign funds in a very tough primary election. In that race, he beat liberal businessman Harry Lonsdale by just 320 votes. For his part, Packwood continues to be sniped at by conservatives who abhor his stands on abortion and gay rights.
Professor Lunch of Oregon State University sees this as part of a national pattern in which Republicans who are not viewed as staunch conservatives become dominated by those who are. "If [Oregon Republican Sen. Mark] Hatfield retires in 1996, this could be the last stand of the old moderate-to-progressive wing of the Republican Party," he says.
He also notes that Oregon's US Senate race can be seen in the context of demographic and economic change occurring in much of the West - changes in which voters in traditional natural-resource jobs like timber and mining are becoming outnumbered by those in tourism, high-tech, and service industries. In this state, that means those in the metropolitan Portland area versus those in more rural southern Oregon and the wide-open spaces east of the Cascade mountains.