Steins critical ads rouse Democratic ire

Parties deal differently with candidates' primary squabbling

There's only so much a political party can do when its candidates start fighting among themselves.

Squabbles broke out in recent days in both the Democratic and Republican gubernatorial primaries. Democrats reacted by calling a special meeting of the state central committee this week to make sure the squabbles don't damage their nominee in the fall. Republicans figured that fighting among themselves is par for the course.

The parties' different reactions stem from Oregon's recent political history. Republicans have been beating themselves up in gubernatorial primaries for years, but the Democrats haven't had a fight like this since 1974.

The ballots are in voters' hands, and the deadline for voting is only 11 days away. That means passions are high as the candidates run out of time to change voters' minds.

Recent history also shows, however, that the quickest way to change a voter's mind is to denigrate an opponent. Last week, Democrat Bev Stein aired a TV ad critical of her two opponents, Jim Hill and Ted Kulongoski.

Also last week, a mailing from Republican Jack Roberts attacked his primary foes, singling out Kevin Mannix on taxes and Ron Saxton for decisions made during his tenure on the Portland school board.

Those under attack complain of unfair tactics. Those on the attack say it's fair criticism.

Where's the line between mudslinging and fair criticism? It's not always easy to tell, said Russell Dondero, political science professor at Pacific University in Forest Grove.

'A negative ad attacks a person without specifics,' he said. 'Negative ads generally suggest something about the person. 'It's their flaws, it's their personality, their demeanor. You can't trust them.' To me, that goes over the top and distorts what's happening. But it's fair when it's about their record. They have to defend their record, a vote or a decision. A public record is a public record.'

'Nothing that any campaign has done has been nasty or mean-spirited,' said Paige Richardson, Stein's campaign manager. 'It's been in the vein of vigorous political debate on the issues, and that's important.'

Democratic Party Chairman Jim Edmunson, though, was concerned about the tone of the Stein ads. He summoned the central committee to party headquarters Tuesday night Ñ with some attending by conference call Ñ to stress the need for caution.

The committee members talked among themselves and decided against issuing a public statement calling on all candidates to avoid negative attacks.

'We discussed some issues about the party, the general election and issues that had arisen about party unity,' said Neel Pender, the party's executive director. 'Whomever emerges from the primary, we'll rally behind.'

Darryl Howard, executive director of the Oregon Republican Party, brushed off Roberts' attacks on Saxton and Mannix.

'Oftentimes, primaries are healthy,' he said. 'They get a lot of issues out on the table and help energize the base. I don't think it hurts us because we have a contested primary, and they have a contested primary. If we were the only ones with a contested primary, I might be concerned.'

Any effort by the party to interfere with a campaign, Howard said, probably wouldn't be taken seriously.

'I know of no campaign manager who'd change their game plan because somebody told them they've gone too far,' he said. 'I've always maintained that when your base tells you've gone too far, that's when you should double your (media) buy.'