Oregonians -- independent, issue-oriented mavericks at the ballot box
Portland, Ore. — Oregon's political reputation as a maverick, unpredictable state seems likely to survive Tuesday's presidential primary intact. The bottom line in both parties appears fairly clear: Ronald Reagan is expected to edge George Bush for the Republican laurels, while President Carter and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy will likely split the Democratic delegates closely.
But, in getting to that bottom line, several paradoxes must be passed.
The key figure in the GOP tally is expected to be US Rep. John B. Anderson of Illinois, no longer in the Republican race but still on the ballot. By splitting the non-Reagan vote with Mr. Bush, he is expected to keep the latter from beating front-runner Reagan -- a repeat of what happened in the Maryland and Wisconsin primaries. And an early Anderson effort to entice Democrats to register for the GOP primary could affect the Democratic outcome, too.
Although characterized by political observers and campaign staffers as generally indifferent to this year's presidential race, Oregonians will likely turn out in great numbers -- as many as 60 to 70 percent of registered voters will go to the polls May 20, state election officials and the candidates' strategists predict. But apart from the traditional habit of high turnouts in Oregon, the force drawing voters to the polls is the high interest in mayoral and state office races.
In their apparent standoff, neither President Carter nor Senator Kennedy can claim a solid base in Oregon. The President is hurt by inflation as an issue in the more prosperous Portland area and by unemployment in the lumber trade around Eugene.
On the other hand, Oregon -- without large numbers of minority group members, Roman Catholics, unionized workers -- offers Senator Kennedy no sizable base in his normal constituency. Fewer than 1 percent of Oregon voters are Jews, a group that helped the senator to his New York and Pennsylvania primary wins. And the senator's latest effort to bait President Carter into debate before June 3 has had limited impact here.
Strategists for both parties say their telephone polling and other tests show that one-third to one-half of Oregon voters were undecided the week before the election, making predictions hazardous.
But as iffy as Oregon is, all the candidates -- including Mr. Anderson -- want to do well here.
President Carter's campaign, at the last moment, decided to invest $40,000 in TV and radio advertising. "Oregon has new importance for us," says Tim Finchem, deputy manager of the national Carter-Mondale campaign. After Mr. Carter's defeat of Senator Kennedy in the May 13 Maryland primary, the President's forces think that doing the same in Oregon could thwart any remaining chance of Kennedy momentum heading into the final June 3 primaries.
Although it occurs late in the primary season, the Oregon contest is the first one in the Far West.
"The President would like a vote of confidence from the state," says Sheryl Losser, his state coordinator here. (Of the five Oregon campaigns, all but Senator Kennedy's are headed by women -- unique in the 1980 state rosters.) "Now we're laying the groundwork for the fall. Carter came closer to winning here than in any other Western state since 1976. The President is going to have to target the West heavily in the fall.
"Voters in Oregon are very issue oriented, but they don't follow party lines, " Miss Losser says, pointing out that the governor and both US senators are Republicans, while its four congressmen are Democrats.
And Oregonians often favor candidates who later fail to win the nomination.
"The opportunity exists for a Kennedy win," says Eric Schnapper, the senator's Oregon coordinator.But the strong blue-collar interest in Mr. Reagan, the high undecided rate, and the lack of distinct voter blocks to study makes it a hard race to call, he adds. The cash-short Kennedy campaign has had little to spend on political ads in Oregon, and workers noted that of 20 hours the senator was in the state over the last weekend, seven were spent sleeping.
On the Republican side, "the anti-Reagan vote is greater than the Reagan vote ," says Josie Martin, the state coordinator for George Bush. "I don't think Reagan can get half the vote. Anderson's the key here. If he takes 10 or 15 points, we're shut out."
Marta Mellinger, Anderson campaign chief, sees Oregon as a state the Illinois congressman could win in November. Because a respectable showing in Tuesday's primary could give a boost to a fall campaign, Anderson workers have done little to remind Oregonians that he is no longer in the GOP race. "It would help his credibility as a candidate," Miss Mellinger says.
The Reagan camp here has not taken the Bush challenge lightly. Oregon is often seen as the West Coast's "Yankee" community, settled largely by westward-bound New Englanders of Anglo stock. So many political observers see it as Connecticut native Bush's best shot at showing up Mr. Reagan in the West.
"We expect to win on Tuesday," says Reagan chairman Dianne Evans. "We took a surprising 48.6 percent of the vote in 1976," she says. Mrs. Evans finds the Oregonian version of Yankee independence congenial to the former California governor as well as to Mr. Bush. "Independence," she says, "is as much a Western trait as an Eastern trait."