Oregon Democratic Governor in Close Race With GOP Challenger

In this season of bleak election forecasts for the Republicans, one bright spot has emerged from an unlikely state: left-leaning Oregon.

This traditionally blue state represents one of the Republicans' best shots at picking up a governorship held by the Democrats, with polls showing Gov. Ted Kulongoski and GOP challenger Ron Saxton virtually tied.

Elsewhere, the Democrats are on a roll this year, appearing likely to pick up governors' seats in powerful states like Ohio, New York and Massachusetts.

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The Republican Governors Association has spent $1 million on the Saxton campaign, and more help is likely to be on the way.

"We think Oregon represents one of our best opportunities to knock off an incumbent Democrat," spokesman Phil Musser said from the group's Washington headquarters.

Around the country, other Democratic governors who had appeared to be in danger have clawed their way back — most notably Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who has pulled well ahead of her GOP challenger in the polls despite Michigan's shaky economy. Similarly, Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle is leading in recent polls, even though he earlier had been viewed as one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the country.

Kulongoski has not been so lucky. He is locked in a tight race with Saxton at a time when by all rights he should be the favorite to win re-election.

After all, Democrats hold a 60,000-voter registration edge over Republicans in Oregon, and lay claim to all but one of the statewide elected offices. The state's economy has been on an upswing over the past two years, after a recession forced serious budget cutbacks during the first years of Kulongoski's tenure.

A former Marine who has attended the funeral of nearly every Oregonian killed in Iraq or Afghanistan, the 65-year-old Kulongoski is respected on a personal level by voters. But he has chagrined even his supporters with unscripted comments suggesting Oregon should look at instituting a sales tax and canceling a refund of excess revenue to taxpayers next year.

Saxton, the 52-year-old co-founder of a Portland law firm, has little political experience — he served one term on the Portland school board. Saxton says he will have little political baggage as he goes to work reforming and streamlining what he portrays as a bloated state bureaucracy.

"This race is mostly about Ted, to be honest," Saxton said. "When I'm out and about, the most common thing I hear from voters about Ted is that he hasn't done anything, that he's simply been absent."

Saxton and the Republicans are talking about electing a GOP governor for the first time since 1982 — a notion Kulongoski, an ardent Boston Red Sox fan, dismissed with a sports analogy.

"The Chicago Cubs keep wanting to win the World Series. Every year they think, `This is going to be the year.' Well, we'll see what happens," the Democrat said.

Tim Hibbitts, an independent pollster from Portland, said Kulongoski and incumbents of both parties are being hurt by a sour mood among the electorate.

"There is an unease and a sense of dissatisfaction with the direction of the state," he said. "People feel like they are treading water economically. Not that many people will tell you they are feeling better off these days."

Saxton has blanketed the TV airwaves with ads criticizing what he says is Kulongoski's lack of leadership. Kulongoski, with strong backing from public employee unions, education boosters and environmentalists, has been hitting back with ads portraying Saxton as a tool of corporations and someone who has worked against the interests of Oregon's working families.

The Democratic Governors Association has put more than $400,000 into Kulongoski's campaign so far.

"We know we have a fight on our hands," spokeswoman Penny Lee said from Washington. "But we feel confident that Gov. Kulongoski will prevail in the end."