Democrat Tag Not a Drag In Oregon Governor Race

OREGON has always been a maverick political state, and 1994 is no different.

While Bill Clinton is urgently portraying elections around the nation as the fight for ``change'' versus a return to Reaganism, and many Democrats elsewhere are scrambling for support, the Democratic candidate for governor here enjoys a wide lead in the polls.

The Republican, a conservative ex-congressman who served during the Reagan years, is losing a big chunk of his own party.

One reason: Many Republicans here still describe themselves as moderate-to-liberal, and they feel uncomfortable with a more ideological brand of Republicanism espoused by the likes of Newt Gingrich, the hard-charging congressman from Georgia who leads his party in the US House of Representatives.

For years, voters in Oregon - where Democrats outnumber Republicans 43-37 percent - have elected such nonideological Republicans as US Sens. Mark Hatfield and Bob Packwood, state Superintendent of Education Norma Paulus, former Attorney General Dave Frohnmayer, and the legendary Gov. Tom McCall.

Such Republicans are ``the key component here,'' says Oregon State University political scientist Bill Lunch. ``They still exist in this state to a degree that is not found elsewhere.''

In a recent statewide poll, Republican gubernatorial candidate Denny Smith trailed his Democratic opponent, former state Senate President John Kitzhaber, by 20 percentage points (53 to 33 percent). Significantly, more than 30 percent of those Republicans polled said they will vote for Mr. Kitzhaber in November.

``Smith is giving away close to a third of the Republican vote, and a Republican just can't do that in this state and win,'' says pollster Tim Hibbitts, whose firm conducted the recent survey for the state's largest newspaper and a Portland television station. In addition, this poll shows the GOP candidate 8 points in the hole on the ``how do you view him?'' scale (31 percent favorable to 39 percent unfavorable).

Analysts attribute this to several things. First, Smith was badly bruised in a tough primary fight. Second, as a US representative for 10 years (he was ousted in 1990), Smith paid little attention to constituent services. While in Congress, his main accomplishment was voting against things. And third, some of his campaign assertions have been shown to be false. (Such as, that he never voted for a tax increase.)

In addition, no single issue has galvanized voters or clearly distinguishes the candidates. They both support timber workers hurt by endangered-species protection. They both oppose the most controversial ballot measures (allowing assisted suicide and prohibiting minority status for homosexuals). They both would spend more on public safety. And they both acknowledge the need for state belt-tightening in the face of a budget crunch caused by 1990 passage of a property tax-limitation measure.

``I would call this a campaign in search of an issue,'' says Southern Oregon State College political scientist Jacqueline Switzer. ``That's why style has become so important.''

Here, observers give Kitzhaber the edge. The Democrat is a folksy emergency-room physician from a rural community (in a state where lawmaking is a part-time job). He's usually seen wearing jeans with a big western buckle with his tie and jacket. In debates, he's relaxed. During his years in the state Senate he gained bipartisan respect for his ability to work out compromises.

Smith gives the impression of being tightly under control. He debates from a briefing book. His campaign manager, Elaine Franklin, is on loan from her post as staff chief for Sen. Bob Packwood, where her main job was protecting her boss from the media as he fought charges of sexual misconduct. On several occasions, Smith has refused to debate.

While the race for governor here has a distinctly ``Oregon'' cast, it can also be seen as a referendum on national health care, since Kitzhaber authored Oregon's unique health-care plan, which is favorably looked upon by reformers.

Under this plan, instead of denying Medicaid to some poor people because of limited funding (which is what happens in other states) officials devised a means of providing health care for everyone eligible by limiting it to more serious procedures and treatments.

It took years to craft this ``rationing'' plan, which is somewhat of an experiment, and to get federal government approval. Smith charges that the plan (which has been in effect for just nine months) is ``a wide-open entitlement ... spiraling out of control.'' He says he would ask voters to defeat it in a statewide referendum.

If there is one other issue on which the front-runner may be vulnerable, it is a sales tax. Oregon has never had a sales tax, and voters have rejected the notion nine times at the polls. Yet Kitzhaber last week said any tax- reform plan designed to meet the state's growing financial crisis would have to include consideration of a sales tax.

``Clearly this helps Denny,'' says professor Lunch, who still believes Kitzhaber will win the election. But he adds: ``Nothing is impossible in politics, as we all know.''

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