SALEM, Ore. – When the Oregon governor's race was taking shape, a sense of inevitability surrounded Democrat Ted Kulongoski's campaign.
Endorsed by the popular outgoing governor, Kulongoski cruised to an easy primary victory in a state where Republicans haven't won a governor's race in 20 years. The former state legislator and Supreme Court justice held a double-digit lead over Republican rival Kevin Mannix in an August poll.
But with only weeks before the election, Kulongoski has watched his lead in the polls dwindle in the face of an aggressive campaign by Mannix, himself a former Democrat.
Kulongoski received 45 percent in a recent poll to Mannix's 41 percent. The margin of error is four percentage points.
"Kulongoski has the lead still, but he's got to give it more `oomph' if he wants to win,'' said Michael Rindfleisch, a policy analyst for the state.
The battle between Kulongoski and Mannix is one of 36 governor races being decided around the country this year. The outcome for the two parties could play a key role in the nation's domestic policy leading up to the 2004 presidential election.
There is a common perception that Kulongoski allowed himself to be put on the defensive early on by Mannix, who painted Kulongoski as a rampant tax-and-spender.
Kulongoski opened himself to the criticism by endorsing a $313 million income tax increase proposed by the Legislature as a way to ease the state's budget woes and avoid cuts to schools and programs.
Portland pollster Tim Hibbitts said the tax issue has hurt Kulongoski, and added that this year's budget battles in the Legislature have left many voters feeling "cranky'' about the state's political leadership.
Even though Mannix served 10 years in the Legislature, Hibbitts said, "he has positioned himself as the outsider who will shake things up.''
Kulongoski is no outsider, having served in all three branches of state government. A former Marine who was raised by nuns in a St. Louis orphanage, Kulongoski was first elected to the Oregon House in 1974, and later moved to the state Senate.
He unsuccessfully challenged Republican U.S. Sen. Bob Packwood in 1980, and in 1982 suffered a bruising defeat when he challenged Republican Gov. Vic Atiyeh for the state's top job.
The 61-year-old Kulongoski has been on a comeback ever since, serving as insurance commissioner under former Gov. Neil Goldschmidt and winning statewide elections as attorney general in 1992 and for a state Supreme Court seat in 1996.
He's running with the blessing of Gov. John Kitzhaber, the popular Democrat who leaves office in January after serving two terms.
Mannix, a socially conservative Salem lawyer who's made two unsuccessful bids for attorney general, says Kulongoski's backing of the income tax hike has been a potent issue.
"He's using the same old bromide, `We have to increase taxes, or we'll have to cut services,''' Mannix said. "The voters are smarter than that.''
Kulongoski concedes Mannix got the upper hand on the tax issue early on. But he says he's aggressively fighting back now by pointing out that Mannix voted for numerous tax hikes as a legislator.
Mannix served five terms in the Oregon House, first as a Democrat, then as a Republican. Mannix switched parties after losing a 1996 primary election race for the Democratic nomination for attorney general against Hardy Myers, who went on to win the post.
Mannix has also been criticized for an anti-abortion stance Kulongoski says is "too extreme'' for Oregon, a state that's considered an abortion rights stronghold.
"I think I reflect the public's values more accurately than Kevin does,'' Kulongoski said.
Mannix has countered that abortion "isn't an issue'' in the governor's race and that the U.S. Supreme Court settled the issue years ago in its Roe vs. Wade ruling keeping abortion legal.
At this point, Hibbitts and political analyst Jim Moore both think Kulongoski ultimately will prevail and become Oregon's next governor.
"Kulongoski just isn't as aggressive as Mannix, and because of that Kulongoski's supporters will be getting ulcers between now and Nov. 5,'' Moore said. "Still, I think it's Kulongoski's race to lose at this point.''