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Oregon could be crucial in 04 election

For Oregon political junkies, politics is a spectator sport. We watch candidates on C-Span pitching themselves to Iowans and New Hampshirites. This year, many of us are observing the Democrats with the same detached removal we have adopted for following the Blazers. But in this case, it's not that the candidates are in trouble with the law or have offended our sense of community. Rather, the timing of the presidential primaries does not allow us to engage in the political process.

Sure, Howard Dean and John Edwards have come to town. But by and large, Oregon is the end of the political trail.

But maybe not this year.

Oregon may be one of a handful of states that will determine who will be the next president.

First, a modern history primer: The 2000 election was a nail-biter so close that a few hundred votes here and there made the difference. Florida's ballot-counting infuriated Democrats, and they are playing for keeps in 2004. Voter mobilization projects now abound nationwide.

Given our unusual political flavors, Oregon has been targeted as a must-win state for the Democrats. Republicans also think that Oregon is within their grasp, and for good reason. With Ralph Nader in the race, then-Gov. George W. Bush almost won the state. Nader, if you haven't heard, is considering another presidential run.

Second, the Democrats desperately want to secure their nomination early. Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe has explicitly stated that he desires a brief primary season, in part because he does not want to see Democrats knocking one another out, and, in the process, sending negative signals to undecided onlookers.

Al Gore's endorsement of Howard Dean, Joe Lieberman's response to Dean ('If Dean were in charge, Saddam would still be in power'), and anti-Dean advertisements by outsiders collectively show that the Democrats, much like all party candidates in the midst of a primary, beat up on one another Ñ and they do not use kid gloves.

So, back to Oregon. Imagine the following scenario: Gephardt wins Iowa. Dean is second by 6 percentage points. Dean wins New Hampshire. Kerry and Gephardt place second and third respectively, with a point or two between them, and within 7 points of Dean. Off to South Carolina. The result Ñ no real winner, as Gephardt, Clark, Dean, Kerry and Edwards each garner no more than 20 percent of the vote. The official winner (Gephardt?) will claim victory, but the primary game advances, in part because there is no emerging superstar.

Before you know it, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio and a whole host of other states become important in the primary process. Guess what? If no clear winner emerges, it is reasonable to imagine a case where Oregon's May primary is rendered useful.

Even if the Oregon primary is moot, its importance in November endures. Oregon is a swing state. Period. It does not have many electoral votes (seven), but in a close race, all electoral votes matter. Republicans who think that Bush is a shoo-in are overly optimistic. Democrats who think that Oregon is a slam dunk for the Democrats are also deluding themselves.

Watch out, Oregon, and stay tuned. The Super Bowl is about a month away, and March Madness is around a few corners. The political season is about to begin, and we may soon find ourselves on C-Span.

Robert M. Eisinger is chairman of the political science department at Lewis & Clark College and also serves as a political analyst for KPAM (860 AM). He lives in Lake Oswego.