Oregon Election Lab Tests Mail-in Ballot

Senate race stands out nationally for vote method and wide ideological gap of foes

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

OREGON'S special United States Senate race - neck-and-neck down to the wire - is proving to be a high-stakes experiment for both major parties.

Lessons to be learned from the contest between US Rep. Ron Wyden (D) and Oregon Senate President Gordon Smith (R) to fill out the term of disgraced former Sen. Bob Packwood (R) include the effect of negative campaigning and how to wage a race with mail-in balloting.

The vote has become a fascinating laboratory for political scientists, pollsters, pundits, and other political junkies. They are watching this campaign and asking: Will this be an early referendum on the Clinton administration or the Republican "revolution" in Congress? Will the early mudslinging match, and the subsequent pull back from negative advertising, hold any advice for other candidates? What will have been the role of money? And what difference will it make that this is the first-ever national election conducted totally by mail?

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Both national parties are paying close attention.

"We're very interested in this race, not only from the political standpoint nationally but also because of the mechanics of the race and the nature of the balloting," says Gordon Hensley, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Steve Jarding, chief spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, calls it "the first test of '96."

Recent high-profile visits by Vice President Al Gore, Elizabeth Dole, various Cabinet secretaries, and US senators of both parties have added to the sense that this is an important race.

Mr. Wyden is a generally liberal Democrat painted by the Smith campaign as the quintessential professional politician and eight-term Washington insider responsible for tax hikes, over regulation, and a bloated federal government.

Mr. Smith is the generally conservative, millionaire owner of a frozen-food business (with just two terms as a state senator on his political resume) portrayed by the Wyden camp as eager to cut social programs, restrict abortion, and make things easier for polluters.

In reality, each is relatively moderate. Smith disagrees with aspects of the GOP's Contract With America. (He would cut some defense programs, for example.) Wyden's congressional track record includes working with Republicans to find compromise solutions.

After weeks of heavy television pitches by both candidates (which included personal attacks), Wyden announced he was taking the high road and renouncing negative ads. His opponents reject this move as a "total scam" that still allows "surrogate slanderers" - mainly labor and environmental groups - to throw hardballs at Smith.

But neutral experts do note the difference in Wyden's tactics - and they say it's a tricky move that could backfire. "In dropping negative ads, Wyden's taking a real risk," says Oregon State University Prof. William Lunch.

What sets this race apart most, though, is its voting method. In this first national mail-in election, ballots have been in voters' hands for nearly two weeks. Professor Lunch, who has tracked local mail-ballot elections here for years, makes several observations about this unique means of voting.

First, turnout is generally higher. Second, individuals who are older, better-educated, and more affluent are more likely to vote. Third, less-knowledgeable, less-interested voters are those who tend to wait until the last minute to vote.

The voter profile in this kind of election could be expected to work to the Republicans' advantage, Lunch says. In this case, however, that may not happen because Wyden has a long record of defending the rights and interests of retirees and other senior citizens - particularly relevant because of talk about cutting Medicare or limiting Social Security.

"Election day" here lasts about 18 days, which means campaign strategists can find out who has voted on a daily basis and target their phone calling and resources, including expensive statewide mailings and broadcast advertising. This can be costly, and here Smith has a clear edge. He will have outspent Wyden by about $1 million, much of it his own money.

Also, because the race is close - likely to be decided by the minority of voters who wait until today or tomorrow to cast their ballots - it means that the candidate with more money to send out mailings and buy TV time for hard-hitting messages aimed at less-informed voters could have the crucial advantage. Again, that's Smith.

Wyden, who was leading by a sliver-thin margin in polls several weeks ago, is now behind by a few percentage points. A key question now is, did his fanfared rejection of attack ads hurt him? "He upped the ante for American politics," says Mr. Jarding, a veteran of 20 years in the political trenches. "If he loses, the easy answer [to those urging an end to negative campaigning] will be, 'Remember Oregon in '96.' "

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