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A radio warmup

The Oregon gubernatorial debates between Democratic incumbent Ted Kulongoski and Republican challenger Ron Saxton have been heating, event by event. The last time we saw them on television, the event was fairly cool. But review of Friday’s radio-only match at the Portland City Club confirms that these two candidates are starting to swing hard, both using some effective lines. If the governor hit with spirit and passion – and ferocity at times, something not necessarily expected of him – Saxton had sound zingers as well. And the responses generally were good. Both are on notice: If either of these guys isn’t game-on on Tuesday, he may be eaten alive.

Which makes us a little eager for next Tuesday’s televised event – the fourth and last. (And a quick thumbs up here to both of them for participating in such a substantial number of debates; such commitment to faceoffs isn’t happening in all races around the region.) For all the shots fired on Friday, plenty of openings are left, and we’re betting no powder will be left dry after Tuesday. Bear in mind: Oregon ballots go out to the voters next weekend.

The City Club debate certainly did point some directions for the candidates’ end games. Some items to watch for:

The core of Saxton’s argument, the focus of his closing statement, is that the Kulongoski Administration is “uninspired, uninterested and unengaged” – and that gets to a widespread sense that the administration hasn’t led strongly. There’s something to that: The governor took no end of complaints, from both parties, of disengagement during the last regular legislative session especially. And in pointing out that this is one of the closest gubernatorial races in the country, maybe the closest featuring an incumbent, Saxton clearly hit on not only a political problem for Kulongoski but something a little deeper as well. The difficulty with this argument is that it’s amorphous, tough to nail, which doesn’t make it unreal but does make it hard to objectively establish. By way of trying to do that, Saxton argues that most of what Kulongoski is calling for is a promise for the future, not delivery during his term, and requires new taxes, which Saxton argues (and this has some force) should be considered only after a more thorough examination of how money already coming in, is spent. This still doesn’t seem quite like the silver bullet – the single, clear, powerful and memorable narrative – needed to get the job done, though in his closing Friday and in some of his other statements he seemed to be moving toward one. One other weakness in deviting the effort to get at this – and this could be addressed on Tuesday – is that not much space is left to get to know who Saxton is and how he sees the state developing over time. After the Friday debate, we still had little of that.

To the do-nothing charge Kulongoski did a strong (if a little angry-sounding) machine-gun recitation of some of what he has done or been involved in during his term. He has had a video ad covering the same ground, to solid effect; both evince a little edgy humor which may be the best way to handle the subject. This form of defense of his record actually sounds stronger than some of his more detailed explanations, which (in his recounting of Oregon’s recessionary period a three and four years back) resonate a little like the offering of an excuse. He still needs to unpack a better way to explain his record. In his attack on Saxton, he’s got some powerful stuff: flawed TV ads (which Saxton flatly defended on Friday, maybe not a good idea), association with President Bush (a politically useful tactic these days), and Saxton’s nuance on a string of base-troubling issues including Measure 48, abortion and others. It would be more powerful if combined it all into a single lethal bomb statement. He hasn’t done that yet, but the ingredients are there.

This appears to remain a close race, not yet decided. Tuesday’s debate, the first televised in a while and likely to be the most significant battle, could have some genuine effect on its outcome.

NOTICE Could it be both campaigns see this debate as similarly important? Both – Kulongoski and Saxton – have taken the unusual step of inviting the public to debate watching parties Tuesday night at 7.

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