Packwood's Travails Stir Early Speculation of Successor in Oregon

FOR many voters in Oregon, this week's jaw-dropping news about Bob Packwood simply reaffirms their lackluster faith in their senator.

Mr. Packwood's political days have seemed numbered here for more than a year. Recent polls show about half of Oregonians wanting him to resign and no more than 25 percent saying they would vote to reelect him in 1998.

The Senate Ethics Committee on Wednesday unanimously recommended that Packwood be expelled from the Senate, declaring that he had ''engaged in a pattern of abuse of his position ... [by] making at least 18 separate unwanted sexual advances between 1969 and 1990.''

The committee also accused Packwood of ''withholding, altering, and destroying relevant evidence, including diary transcripts and tapes'' and soliciting lobbyists for a job for his former wife.

When charges of the sexual misconduct started to emerge shortly after his reelection in 1992, Packwood began keeping a very low profile in his home state.

He refused to talk to the state's largest newspaper (the Portland Oregonian, which called for his resignation), and he carefully selected friendly audiences for public appearances.

When Republicans won control of the House and Senate last year, it seemed to boost Packwood's standing. As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, he had considerable power. He also cultivated the friendship and support of Senate majority leader Bob Dole (R) of Kansas.

But his recent call for public hearings on charges against him (after months of fighting such hearings) apparently was seen as a threat by fellow Republicans, weary of a story that had become increasingly embarrassing.

''He's been extraordinarily clever and a tremendously skillful game-player in politics for years and years and years,'' says Oregon State University political scientist William Lunch. ''But his ability at game-playing finally caught up with him.''

The surprising turn of events also has shaken up Oregon politics. It opens up the possibility that the state could be crucial to the balance of power in the US Senate.

If the full Senate follows the Ethics Committee's lead and expels the five-term Republican for sexual and official misconduct, or if Packwood resigns (it was unclear at this writing what path the drama would take), a special election would be held here to fill the post through 1988.

In addition, it seems increasingly likely that Oregon's senior senator - Republican Mark Hatfield - will retire at the end of his sixth term next year. This means that both Senate seats would be up for grabs in short order at a time when Democrats in the state are in a decidedly stronger position to prevail.

''A number of politicians around the state are just licking their chops,'' says Jacqueline Switzer, a political scientist at Southern Oregon State College. ''And if there are two seats open, then the scramble will be intense.''

Oregonians are independent voters. Last year, they elected mostly Republicans to both houses of the state legislature but also chose Democrat John Kitzhaber as governor. Most members of Congress and most statewide office holders are Democrats as well.

Mentioned prominently as likely Senate candidates are two Democratic members of Congress: Peter DeFazio and Ron Wyden. Each has an attractive combination of Washington experience and Oregon independence.

''When Bob Packwood leaves the Senate, I will be a candidate for Oregon's vacant Senate seat,'' Representative DeFazio said

A big unknown on the Democratic side is former Governor Neil Goldschmidt, now a lawyer in Portland specializing in international trade. Previously, Mr. Goldschmidt was a popular mayor of the state's largest city and then Secretary of Transportation in the Carter administration.

''A lot depends on whether Goldschmidt decides to run,'' says Dr. Switzer. ''I think he'd have the Democratic side locked up. But if there were to be two seats open, then we're opening it up to a broader audience.''

ON the Republican side are three unrelated Smiths: Bob Smith, a rancher who retired last year after six terms in Congress; former US Rep. Denny Smith, who was voted out of office in 1990 after 10 years in Congress and then lost to Mr. Kitzhaber in last years gubernatorial race; and state Senate president Gordon Smith, a young and attractive politician who made a good showing during the recent legislative session.

Probably the most electable Republican, says Professor Lunch, is state superintendent of education Norma Paulus.

But she is pro-choice on abortion. This means she would have a hard time being nominated by the Republican Central Committee - which is dominated by the very conservative Oregon Citizens' Alliance. The OCA has pushed anti-abortion and anti-gay rights initiatives in the state.

''The incentive for Democrats is to hold the special election quickly, because they have stronger candidates,'' Lunch says.

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