If President Bush (search) is to win Oregon on Election Day (search), he must go panning for votes in places like this historic gold-mining boomtown in the southern part of the state.

Bush did just that Thursday night, campaigning in a growing region near the California state line where John Kerry (search) appears to be making inroads in a traditional Republican stronghold.

Two and a half weeks ahead of the election, the president heads Friday to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Oshkosh, Wis., completing more than a week on the campaign trail that included stops in St. Louis and Tempe, Ariz., for the last two debates.

Bush lost Oregon in 2000 by less than 7,000 votes, though he handily defeated Democrat Al Gore in the county containing Jacksonville, a town created when gold was discovered here in 1851. The gold rush is long over but Jacksonville preserved its heritage and the entire town, population 2,300, is designated a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Interior Department.

The area has turned from a declining timber industry to tourism and retirement for its strong economy.

Bush's father paid a visit as vice president to Jacksonville, and his son repeated the compliment, staying overnight in a 141-year-old inn whose last presidential guest was Rutherford B. Hayes.

"I understand Rutherford complained about the tab; I'm not going to," Bush told thousands of cheering supporters at the Jackson County fairgrounds in nearby Central Point.

While waiting for the president to return to Jacksonville, anti-Bush protesters were dispersed by police in riot gear who fired pepperballs at them, projectiles like a paintball filled with cayenne pepper. Police took the action while moving the crowd away from the Jacksonville Inn where the president was to arrive for dinner.

Jackson County Republican Party Chairman Bryan Platt says he has never seen so much attention lavished on the area by presidential campaigns.

Kerry and his runningmate, Sen. John Edwards, and Vice President Dick Cheney all have visited once this year.

A new local poll indicates the county is almost evenly divided between Kerry and Bush.

That would be a surprising development for an area where the breakdown of registered voters is 42 percent Republican, 34 percent Democrat and 21 percent independents — a pattern that has not changed significantly in the past four years.

Platt says Republican Party contacts with 13,000 independent voters indicate they would break 2-to-1 for Bush, throwing the county to the president.

As evidence that the political picture is in their favor, Democrats point to people like John Bova, 52, an Ashland land surveyor who sported a "Republicans for Kerry" button at this week's appearance by Edwards.

"I think the principals of the Republican Party are good," but rising deficits, going into Iraq without a broad coalition of nations and a growing government do not go along with those principals," Bova said. "I'm not happy with what `W ' is doing in about every facet — mainly Iraq."