Ex-governor the favorite in Democratic race

PORTLAND — John Kitzhaber seems to have it all in his race to become Oregon's governor — again.

Seven years out of office, his name remains familiar to many Oregonians. His campaign contributions and endorsements grow daily. He's got Facebook fans and Twitter followers.

And a poll — paid for by Kitzhaber's campaign — gives him a whopping lead over old friend, and new rival, Bill Bradbury.

But more than two months before the May 18 primary election, Kitzhaber is missing one expected element: Confidence that he'll win the Democratic nomination.

He's not alone.

Political analysts say that while the former governor is the favorite, politics have a way of upending the sure bet.

"When you have a 30-point lead, you're clearly the strong favorite," said Portland pollster Tim Hibbitts, referring to the poll released last month by Kitzhaber that showed the former governor leading the former secretary of state 55 percent to 21 percent.

"It's dangerous in these times to anoint somebody or assume somebody can't lose or say someone is likely to win with three months to go," Hibbitts said. "Likely is not a sure thing."

The poll, conducted for Kitzhaber by Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz and Assc., questioned 554 people likely to vote in the Democratic primary election. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.2 percent.

A host of reasons — from the thousands who have moved into the state since Kitzhaber served as governor in 1995-2003 to a population demanding economic action to endorsements by the big public employee unions — will influence the primary election.

The Democratic Party picked up almost 100,000 new voters in 2008, many of them young adults who are unfamiliar with Kitzhaber.

And the powerful public employee unions haven't weighed in yet. Winning endorsements from those groups could ignite Bradbury's campaign — or turn the race overwhelmingly to Kitzhaber.

The Oregon Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, Oregon School Employees Association and the Service Employees International Union will decide who they'll back early this month.

"One of the things that's misleading about polls this early is that ordinary voters who will cast their ballots in May and in November are not paying attention except in a very limited way," said Bill Lunch, chairman of the political science department at Oregon State University. "Along about April, when the flowers are blooming, ordinary voters will start paying attention."

On May 18, voters will choose Kitzhaber or Bradbury to be the Democratic candidate for governor. The Republican field lacks a front-runner among former NBA player Chris Dudley, businessman Allen Alley, former state senator John Lim, and tax activist Bill Sizemore. The deadline for filing to run is March 9.

Kitzhaber, 62, has kept a low public profile while working on proposals to overhaul education and public finance, the centerpiece of his campaign. Kitzhaber wants a new state budget system that allows longer range planning, and some kind of a consumption tax to provide steady funds for schools.

Kitzhaber also is reintroducing himself to Oregonians. More than 60 percent of the people who will vote in the primary may not have been Oregon voters when he was in office, he said in an interview.

"It's fair for people to see why my view of Oregon and Oregon politics has really changed," said Kitzhaber, whose famous line on leaving office was that Oregon was "ungovernable." ''There's no reason for me to be doing this at my age unless I can be a part of big change."

Meanwhile, the gregarious Bradbury, 61, is on a more public stump, drawing battle lines with Kitzhaber.

Bradbury campaigns to the left of Kitzhaber, calling himself a progressive Democrat and vocally supporting measures that raised taxes for corporations and higher-income individuals.

Public education needs an infusion of money now, Bradbury said. He also is pushing to revamp Oregon's kicker tax rebate to protect public services during tough economic times.

Bradbury attended a recent 40th anniversary celebration for Portland's Loaves and Fishes charity, held in a 100-year-old church in southeast Portland. Afterward, he helped deliver Meals on Wheels, rolling on the Segway he uses because multiple sclerosis makes walking difficult.

"I feel like I'm the challenger, the underdog," Bradbury said. "But I feel like it's a pretty competitive race."

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