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Kerry Can't Take Oregon for Granted

September 27, 2004|Sam Howe Verhovek | Times Staff Writer

GRESHAM, Ore. — Democrats have not lost a presidential election in Oregon since Ronald Reagan's landslide reelection two decades ago. And it would seem relatively safe territory for Sen. John F. Kerry: Anti-Iraq war sentiment runs strong here, and the state has had the nation's highest unemployment rate for parts of President Bush's term.

Yet the double-digit lead Kerry rode in polls here earlier this summer has narrowed sharply, reflecting his general slide in national polls but also the unease many Oregonians express about Kerry's credentials as a commander in chief.

Now, just a month after Kerry drew 40,000 to a boisterous waterfront rally in Portland, Oregon's seven electoral votes are in play. The Democrat will have to spend time and money to hold onto this state, which Al Gore narrowly won in 2000. And based on the nationwide political landscape, carrying Oregon appears vital to Kerry's presidential hopes.

Bush's Oregon prospects could get a boost from a conservative turnout for a ballot measure that would amend the state's constitution to ban gay marriage. Current polls indicate the initiative is headed for passage by a wide margin.

However, most independent experts still give Kerry the edge, and one major reason is the absence of Ralph Nader's name on this year's presidential ballot. State officials said Nader didn't have enough valid signatures on his petition to run as an independent, a ruling the state's highest court upheld last week.

Four years ago, the then-Green Party candidate snared 77,357 votes, or 5%, one of his strongest statewide showings. Gore won the state by 6,700 votes, or 0.5%.

Today, many who supported Nader in 2000 consider themselves "reformed Naderites," as one put it. And in one of the country's most environmentally conscious states, it is easy to find such voters.

"Big mistake. Painful lesson," said Bryan Smith, a lawyer for the state's Department of Environmental Quality.

"I voted for Nader, and I wound up with an imperialist nightmare," said Skip Clarke, a 32-year-old computer programmer.

Kerry will get both Smith's and Clarke's vote this time, and Oregon pollsters say there are many others out there like them -- remorseful Nader 2000 supporters who now have deep antipathy toward Bush.

Of the four most recent statewide polls, two showed Kerry with a modest lead, one put Bush up slightly, and the fourth had the race at a statistical tie.

"I think overall, Kerry has a lead here, but it's precarious, and he's going to have to work to keep it," said Bill Lunch, the political science department chairman at Oregon State University in Corvallis and a radio analyst for Oregon Public Broadcasting.

"His lead is certainly way down from where it was before the Republican convention," Lunch said.

Tim Hibbitts, an independent pollster in Portland, says Kerry's dipping support reflects the candidate's troubles nationally, like the veterans group questioning his Vietnam War record and Bush's upward bounce in the polls after the GOP convention in New York. "The national tide's been running away from him in recent weeks," Hibbitts said. "If it starts running back, he'll probably be up by 8 or 9 points again as opposed to perhaps 3 now."

In this initiative-happy state, the Bush campaign is hoping to benefit from a measure that would amend the state constitution to specifically define marriage as a heterosexual union. The most recent poll showed the measure passing 61% to 34%.

The so-called One Man, One Woman initiative is a big issue for some people in Gresham, a politically divided Portland suburb framed by a majestic Mt. Hood vista, and the voters who favor it appear squarely in the Bush camp.

"These sorts of moral issues are very, very important to me," said Yvette Nall, a hairdresser. "I like that Bush is not afraid to stand up for them. He's not afraid to say that Christian principles are important."

On the other hand, Kerry could benefit from a backlash against the measure. National gay rights groups plan to target the state with TV and radio ads because Oregon's libertarian leanings make it a likely place for a victory on the issue. Eleven states have antigay marriage measures on the Nov. 2 ballot.

Kerry opposes amending the federal constitution to ban gay marriage. Opponents of the initiative in Oregon are carving out a similar position, arguing against tampering with Oregon's constitution.

"That's really their only hope," Hibbitts said. "If the issue is fought out as a straight referendum against same-sex marriage, the amendment will pass. Period.

"If the opponents can make this an issue of, 'Hey, do you really want to put this in the state constitution?' they may win. But count me as a skeptic," he said.

Another hotly contested initiative would increase the amount of marijuana a state resident could use for doctor-approved medical purposes, though it was less clear whether this measure would influence the presidential race.

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