In the Game of Politics, Some Are Playing Nice

Tight race for open Oregon seat in US House is sticking to the issues, staying smear free.

"Hi Molly!" David Wu says as he settles into his seat for the taping of a lively local television show called "Face Off."

"Hi David, how are you?" replies Molly Bordonaro, returning the smile and handshake as technicians fiddle with the gear.

The geniality seems genuine, especially since the cameras are yet to roll on what will be an important debate between these candidates for a highly contested seat in the United States House of Representatives. No need for fake politeness here.

In a world of attack ads and personal political smears, this episode in Portland, Ore., the other night raises important questions: Can a race for Congress be run on the issues, without character defamation, and - gasp! - completely lacking in references to the highly partisan soap opera back in Washington? Is it possible to run a campaign that is both clean and tough?

Like some other candidates elsewhere, Mr. Wu and Ms. Bordonaro pledged to follow "standards of conduct" outlined by the League of Women Voters. Among these: conducting their campaigns "openly and fairly," not engaging in or condoning "personal attacks unrelated to campaign issues," and not using campaign materials or broadcast ads "which misrepresent, distort, or otherwise falsify the facts."

For the most part, say election watchers, the candidates have held to their vows. Says Wu: "Sometimes I just feel like we're running a marathon together." Still, this is not some kind of nonabrasive "Pleasantville" as depicted in the new hit movie.

Bordonaro charges that her Democratic opponent has refused to endorse a balanced-budget amendment and wants to spend "billions in new bureaucracy." Wu says the Republican candidate favors school vouchers, would restrict abortion rights, and might cut Social Security benefits.

Each has accused the other of "negative campaigning," but so far at least the thresholds described in their campaign-conduct pledge appear not to have been crossed.

"We don't have anything against negative ads as long as it stays truthful and accurate," says Tim Gleason, dean of the school of journalism and communications at the University of Oregon and coordinator for the Oregon Alliance for Better Campaigns, a political watchdog group.

In this case, there seems no doubt that Bordonaro has worked to appear more moderate to voters who just two years ago reelected one of the most liberal members of Congress (Democrat Elizabeth Furse). But this has left her open to questions about past statements on issues such as school vouchers and abortion.

"Certainly, pointing to someone's past positions is fair game," says Margaret Noel of the Oregon League of Women Voters.

This congressional race is one of the closest in the US, and winning the open House seat is important to both parties. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Sen. Bob Dole have campaigned here for Bordonaro, House minority leader Richard Gephardt and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton for Wu.

The district stretches from downtown Portland west - through the "silicon forest" of high-tech firms and then farmland - all the way to the fishing town of Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River. It thus represents what is both old and new about Oregon, as do the two candidates.

Molly Bordonaro is a fifth-generation Oregonian. After college she worked for a conservative think tank in Washington for five years before returning home to make her first run for Congress two years ago. David Wu arrived with his family from Taiwan at age 6 not speaking English. After being educated at Stanford, Harvard, and Yale, Mr. Wu returned to the area as a lawyer representing high-tech firms. If elected, Wu would be the first Chinese-American elected to the House.

Both candidates, who have not held elective office, are seen as having much potential.

The state's political culture is one reason this campaign has remained relatively clean. "Even at its worst, Oregon is a lot more civil than a lot of other states," says Dr. Gleason.

Incumbent Gov. John Kitzhaber (D), for example, has not mentioned that Republican candidate Bill Sizemore once went through a business bankruptcy, which might be seen as particularly embarrassing given that his political career is based on straightening out government finances.

In a special 1996 US Senate race to replace Bob Packwood (who resigned amid charges of sexual harassment), Democrat Ron Wyden pulled his negative ads off the air when polls showed voter disapproval of a race that had gotten unusually harsh on both sides. Mr. Wyden won by one percentage point. The footnote is that Wyden's opponent in that race - Gordon Smith - won the election later that year to replace retiring Sen. Mark Hatfield. Democrat Wyden and Republican Smith now work closely on many issues important to their state.

Even in mild-mannered Oregon, there are some opinion-makers who think that political campaigns can be too nice.

"Oregon politics is going soft," The (Portland) Oregonian, the state's major newspaper, editorialized recently. "It seems every tough question, every criticism of somebody's political record ... is answered with the same cry of negative campaigning.... Voters should insist on honesty and fairness, but not cringe at or turn away from hard-edged campaigns," opined the paper (which endorsed Bordonaro). "Politics can't always be pretty."

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