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Battleground Oregon

BACK STORY • Die-hards keep it interesting in state far from presidential action
by:  JIM CLARK, Dennis Kucinich supporters Alison Gaylor (left) and Emily Hirsch (with sign) march in a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event last week. Kucinich, a Democratic congressman from Ohio, pulled the plug on his presidential campaign days later.

To most of the American public, the news last Thursday that Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, was dropping out of the presidential race was barely news at all.

But to a small group of passionate devotees here and nationwide, the announcement was devastating.

'It's a very sad for this country,' said Claire McGee, the Newport-based coordinator for the 2,000 or so Kucinich supporters in Oregon. 'He was the only one who voted against the Patriot Act. … It's just a sad, sad, sad day for America.'

In a liberal bastion like Portland, Kucinich supporters had fertile ground for their candidate, a staunch liberal who opposes the Iraq war, supports gay marriage, resisted corporate funds and wants to end the North American Free Trade Agreement.

In a move blocked by Democratic leaders, Kucinich introduced a bill that would have started impeachment proceedings against Vice President Dick Cheney, and announced last week an effort to impeach President Bush. Kucinich quit the presidential race to focus on his re-election to Congress.

Although Kucinich had gained little traction nationally, his was probably the most visible presidential campaign in Portland - rivaled only by the equally long-shot drive of Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas.

The dedication of Kucinich and Paul supporters against such overwhelming odds is even more remarkable considering that many political observers do not believe the Oregon primary will have any impact on this year's election.

Oregon's primary is set for May 20, more than three months after next week's Super Tuesday elections in 22 states that could all but decide both the Democratic and Republican presidential races.

Despite that, the Paul and Kucinich enthusiasts have been doing what grass-roots activists do: everything they possibly can to get their candidate's name out.

For example, a dedicated group of about 400 local 'Paulunteers,' as they've dubbed themselves, have distinguished themselves as die-hards by standing along Portland's highways and overpasses with banners at rush hour for the past six months.

Most of them met on Paul's 'Meetup' Web site, the online vehicle his supporters have used to connect with one another and raise campaign funds; on Dec. 16, during the 'Ron Paul Tea Party,' his supporters nationwide set the record for the largest single-day political donation, $6 million.

Until last week, Kucinch's supporters have been staging similar events in Portland and throughout the state.

In contrast, local campaigns for the major Democrat and Republican candidates are barely visible. So far the public mostly has seen a smattering of television ads bought by their national campaigns.

Power players take sides

The establishment clearly is throwing its weight behind the front-runners. However, most of their efforts so far have been behind the scenes, such as making calls to voters in other states.

Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., has a 13-member Oregon steering committee that includes city Commissioner Erik Sten, former Portland Development Commission Director John Russell and Josh Kardon, chief of staff to Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

Former Sen. John Edwards, a Democrat from North Carolina, has a six-member Oregon team that includes developer Homer Williams; Peter Bragdon, former chief of staff to Gov. Ted Kulongoski; and Kari Chisholm, founder of Blue Oregon, the state's leading Democratic blog.

And local groups of Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., fans have sprouted at Lewis and Clark College, Oregon Health and Science University, Mt. Hood Community College and elsewhere in the state.

On the Republican side, there's been little in the way of organized campaign efforts; supporters say they're willing to begin putting up lawn signs and making phone calls to voters if asked when May primary election draws closer.

Until Kucinich dropped out, his supporters were buoyed by the fact that there are no clear-cut winners in the Democratic race so far - holding out hope that other like-minded members of their parties would vote with their conscience, not for those they believed most likely to be elected.

'By voting for Dennis, we're validating our values,' said Terra Bliss, 21, a Portland State University student and spokeswoman for Kucinich's statewide campaign. 'Those values don't ebb and flow with the poll numbers. They're constant.'

Paul's supporters also feel that way, and have been braving the cold to prove it. One recent evening, Katja Delavar, 36, joined eight others holding Ron Paul signs along Interstate 5 at Rosa Parks Way during rush hour with slogans like 'Ron the incorruptible' and 'Win a free country.'

'He woke me up to politics,' said Delavar, a dental hygienist from Washougal, Wash., where the state primary will be held Feb. 19. 'Lots of people want their vote to count. I want them to know their vote will count.'

Another 'banner brigade' enthusiast, Jerret Kinsman, 29, of Beaverton, also says Paul shook him out of his apathy. A lifelong Republican, he's recently grown disenchanted with Bush's position on the war and the general direction of the GOP, until he heard of Paul, and fell in love with his sense of honesty and integrity.

'The Republican Party's dying,' Kinsman said. 'I go to meetings, and there's 50-, 60-year-old people. They've diverged so much from what the Republican Party originally stood for, they don't believe in it anymore.'

Outsiders draw support

It's not surprising that Portland became a hotbed for Kucinich and Paul. Both are staunchly opposed to the war in Iraq, as well as the North American Free Trade Agreement that labor unions blame for sending good-paying jobs out of the country.

Paul, who also is supported by many Libertarians, wants to abolish the federal income tax and leave issues of abortion and same-sex marriage to be decided by individual states.

The fact that Kucinich was shut out of major televised presidential debates helped to cast him in the shadows of the bigger names in Democratic Party. His supporters claim he won several early post-debate polls last year that were hidden by the media.

Paul's supporters also complain the media is not taking their candidate seriously.

Robert Eisinger, a Lewis and Clark College political science professor who's been watching the state contests closely, said he doesn't quite agree with charges that the media have conspired to censorship.

He thinks the answer is simpler, and has to do with the nature of journalism. 'I think they're getting less coverage because citizens like the horse race, and polls show they're behind in the horse race,' he said. 'If you're not first, second or third, people are left behind.'

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is said to be considering an independent bid for the presidency, as is consumer advocate Ralph Nader, who some believe cost Vice President Al Gore the 2000 election when he ran on the Green Party ticket. Nader also ran in 2004 as an independent.

Portland attorney Greg Kafoury, who traveled with Nader and did fundraising speeches for him in 2000 and 2004, said Nader will decide within days if he'll run.

'If (the Democratic nominee is) Hillary (Clinton), I don't think wild horses could stop him,' Kafoury said, noting that both he and his son, Jason, a student at Tulane University, would campaign for Nader again this time around. 'If not, it would be a closer question.'

Locals look for a winner

Other local Democrats and Republicans are throwing their weight behind other candidates for different reasons. Sue Castner, 53, a former Bill Clinton staffer and political activist who lives in Northwest Portland, is part of Hillary Clinton's local steering committee.

She believes Clinton is the best person to get the job done, based on her experience, but Castner still has a lot of respect for Kucinich.

'I love Dennis,' she said. 'He's got his message; he's out there with it.' At the Nevada primary, she recalls, she saw a Kucinich supporter standing in the middle of the room, unwilling to commit to Clinton or Obama.

'I said, 'Good for you, stand where you are,' ' she said. Yet Castner believes Clinton's experience sets her apart from the other candidates.

Shane Driscoll, 34, is a political junkie and longtime Republican who lives in Hillsboro. He's supporting former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, based on his electability, 'squeaky clean' nature and conservative views on various issues.

As for Paul, he says: 'There are things about him that are admirable, but even though I agree with him on things … he's missed the boat entirely on the war. … Romney supports continuing action, but also paying attention to other countries around Iraq.'

Paul hasn't made a big showing so far, except for besting Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., with 14 percent of the vote in the Nevada caucus Jan. 19.

That doesn't matter entirely to Scott Sutton, 39, of Northeast Portland, who's followed Paul's career over the past decade and has been amazed by the support he's attracted so far in the election.

'Even leaving aside the importance of the issues involved, this is such an unprecedented grass-roots movement,' he said. 'To me, it's a deeply encouraging sign of vitality and progress. There are genuine, authentic people finding each other, getting together to make things happen. That in itself is an astonishing story.'

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Go to a party's party

The Democratic Party of Oregon will host 20 Super Tuesday parties around the state Feb. 5. The biggest is set for 6 to 10 p.m. at the Tiffany Center, 1410 S.W. Morrison St. Tickets are $50. For information, call Elizabeth Wilson, 503-239-8629.

Republicans will hold a Super Tuesday party hosted by 910 AM KTRO and 93.9 FM KPDQ from 4 to 9 p.m. Tuesday at Beaches Restaurant, 1919 S.E. Columbia River Drive, Vancouver, Wash.

Conservative talk show hosts Georgene Rice and Rusty Humphries will broadcast live from the event. For information, call Jordan Smith, 503-652-8146.