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US Presidential Campaigns Seek Support in Swing State of Oregon - 2004-09-28

The U.S. presidential campaign is heating up in a number of so-called battleground states, where the election outcome remains too close to call. The northwestern state of Oregon is one of these battleground states, and it is getting a lot of attention from the political parties.

Robert Eisinger, the head of the political science department at Lewis and Clark College, says Oregon is much like other battleground states, where either candidate could come out a winner.

"You see in many ways two states here, a remarkably rural, conservative state, and an urban, liberal state," he says. "And when you mix it together, you find that Oregon becomes a battleground state with regard to presidential politics."

Democrat Al Gore won here in 2000 by less than 7,000 votes. Some polls give Democrat John Kerry the edge this year, but Republicans cite other polls that put President Bush ahead. At Republican headquarters in Salem, south of Portland, volunteers are manning the phone banks.

"Hi, my name is Nick and I'm a local volunteer calling on behalf of President Bush," one volunteer says. "The president's tax relief packages have helped revive our economy. Over 1.5 million new jobs have been created in the past 10 months?"

Wayne Brady coordinates the volunteers who spread the Republican message, including 16-year-old Nick Gower, several retirees and local grandmothers. He says they are calling voters to identify Bush supporters, and will follow up later to make sure they cast their ballots.

"Because I think it's extremely important to get President Bush reelected," he says. "I'm concerned about the war on terror, and I think the president is the best person to do that job."

Dave Jackson, a Vietnam veteran, also thinks security is the big issue in this election. He came here a week ago to pick up a sign for his front lawn supporting President Bush, and has been working as a volunteer days and evenings since then.

"I'm recruiting volunteers and then at nights, we're calling people with short surveys," he says.

The surveys deal with issues like national security and taxes, which Republicans say rank high with the president's likely supporters.

An hour by car from Salem, close to downtown Portland, other volunteers are making phone calls and entering data on computers in support of John Kerry.

Volunteer Dave Engels of Woodburn, Oregon, accuses President Bush of making "a mess of the world" and the U.S. economy. Mr. Engels who suffers from a neurological illness, is also opposed to Mr. Bush because of the president's position on a controversial type of medical research. "I have Parkinson's disease, and he's sitting on the funding for stem cell research," he says.

President Bush opposes federal funding for medical research using embryonic stem cells, citing moral concerns over the destruction of human embryos. Supporters of the research, including Senator Kerry, say it offers hope to people with degenerative conditions like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease.

Some voters are motivated largely by single issues. A number of liberal voters want to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples, sparking an issue that has rallied conservatives. Many Republicans are backing an Oregon ballot measure to restrict marriage to a man and woman.

Mr. Bush opposes gay marriage. Mr. Kerry says he also opposes it, but is considered sympathetic to gay rights issues. Both sides hope the Oregon measure will motivate their supporters to vote.

For many the state, where unemployment is high, the economy is the key issue. Dee Craig-Arnold, also a volunteer for the Kerry campaign, says she wants a candidate who will create opportunities for African Americans like her.

"I think it's so important for all of us to be involved in the political process, and particularly now, when I believe that our country's in jeopardy," she says. "And I have a grandson that I raise, and I want his life to be better."

Kevin Mannix, chairman of Oregon's Republicans, says people seeking opportunities are more often drawn to the Republican party. He says the party is reaching out to entrepreneurs and immigrants, and those who share the Republican view that excessive regulation is hurting regional industries like timber.

The party is targeting voters in the suburbs and rural areas, while maintaining the morale of Republicans in Democratic enclaves. He says Oregon is like a lake with several islands.

"And the lake is generally the rural and suburban areas, which tend to be Republican, and the islands are the Eugene and Portland communities, which tend to be Democratic," he says. "And the water is rising in this lake."

The third party candidacy of independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader might have buoyed Republican fortunes. Mr. Nader is an environmentalist and critic of big business, and while his impact is debated, he draws many liberal votes that would otherwise go to Senator Kerry. Running on the Green Party ticket four years ago, he drew five percent of Oregon's presidential vote.

This year, however, a Democratic state official invalidated some petition signatures from Mr. Nader's supporters, keeping his name off the ballot in Oregon. A lower court reversed the action, but the Oregon supreme court reinstated it. Mr. Nader will run in Oregon as a write-in candidate.

The action has infuriated Nader sympathizers, who accuse Oregon Democrats of "dirty tricks." It has also upset Republicans, who now face a more unified opposition. Mr. Mannix says, however, it won't make too much difference because many Naderites are backing Senator Kerry this time around.

The Nader campaign is appealing the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, but spokesman Greg Kafoury admits that Mr. Nader faces an uphill battle.

"He is loved and respected by vast numbers of people, a rather small percentage of whom will vote for him," he says. "Many of the rest are consumed by fear of George Bush and so they've adopted this 'anybody but Bush' mantra."

Paige Richardson, Oregon director for the Kerry campaign, says this presidential election may be as close as the election in 2000, which was decided on the basis of barely 500 votes in Florida. She says battleground states like Oregon really matter.

"As the elections are becoming closer and decided by smaller and smaller margins nationally, every state matters," she says. "States with fewer electoral votes are on the radar screen this time, and Oregon certainly is because neither party wins without Oregon's seven votes."

That may an overstatement, but Oregon's seven electoral votes are a coveted prize this year. A candidate needs 270 electoral votes to win the presidency, and barring a shift in public opinion, only a handful of states are still in play.

The vote in Oregon is now conducted entirely by mail, so the polling will start in mid-October. Results should be announced late on election day, November 2.