ASHLAND, ORE. — THIS week's special primary election to fill Bob Packwood's US Senate seat marks the end of an era and the beginning of what could be the next century's way of voting.
The forced departure of Mr. Packwood due to ethical lapses, together with the retirement of fellow Republican Mark Hatfield, actually ends two eras in Pacific Northwest politics.
One is the loss of regional clout as two senior senators (who headed tax-writing and spending committees) follow last year's departure of House Speaker Tom Foley (D) of Washington and before that such luminaries as Sens. Henry ''Scoop'' Jackson (D) and Warren Magnuson (D) from Washington State.
The other era apparently drawing to a close here is one in which relatively liberal Republicans (and mavericks from both parties) have won bipartisan support year after year.
According to observers, Tuesday's election reveals the following:
* There's now a clear choice between a conservative Republican and a liberal Democrat, both of whom will have to fight for the moderate middle-ground inhabited by most of the state's party members, as well as its independents.
* The nation's first vote-by-mail for federal office appears to be a big success in terms of turnout, cost, and lack of problems.
* And campaign money becomes even more important with ''election day'' spread over several weeks. At the same time, there seems to be less chance for focused, last-minute negative campaigning with the new mail-in ballot voting schedule.
Winning the Republican Party primary was state Senate President Gordon Smith. Mr. Smith, the wealthy owner of his family's frozen-food business, easily beat State Superintendent of Public Instruction Norma Paulus.
Ms. Paulus, a well-known moderate who favored abortion rights, backed a state sales tax, and opposed conservative efforts to ban gay-rights measures, was trounced. Smith, on the other hand, wants to limit abortion practices, favors a balanced-budget amendment, and accepted the endorsement of the Oregon Citizens Alliance - an organization aligned with the Christian Coalition that has proposed several ballot measures designed to prevent ''special rights'' for homosexuals.
Winner of the Democratic nomination is US Rep. Ron Wyden, an eight-term member of Congress who supports abortion, voted against the balanced-budget amendment and tax cuts, and for the line-item veto.
Over the years, Oregon's veteran senators - especially Senator Hatfield - were able to bring several billion dollars worth of government projects to a state with less than 2 percent of the US population. Whether this loss of influence will be felt is unclear.
''Obviously there'll be some impact from losing the chairmen of two powerful committees,'' says Jacqueline Switzer, a political scientist at Southern Oregon State College in Ashland.
But with a newer generation of more ideological lawmakers arriving on Capitol Hill, seniority becoming less important in deciding who leads committees, and less federal spending, Prof. Switzer adds, longevity may not count for as much in Congress.
IT may have been due partly to the unusual circumstances of the special election and to the wide media attention it generated, but the primary vote to replace Packwood produced a record turnout: 57 percent of eligible voters, compared with 43 percent in the 1994 presidential primary.
And so far, the problems predicted by critics of mail balloting - fraud and undue influence by family members, employers, and others - have not materialized.
''Oregonians are making vote-by-mail a success,'' says Secretary of State Phil Keisling. ''A lot of the concerns that have been raised have turned out to be the figments of some people's imaginations.''
As for the outcome of the general election in January, Republican Smith - with a larger campaign war chest and a more unified party - seems to have the edge. The fact that conservative political action committees have more resources than more-liberal support groups is likely to be a factor as well, Switzer says.
But Oregonians' historic pattern of voting across party lines remains true.
Says long-time political analyst Russell Sadler: ''Packwood's successor will be picked by those wonderfully pesky Oregon independents, who have nothing in common but their independence.''