Regardless of how they intend to vote in the fall, Oregonians should be pleased with the caliber of candidates running for governor this year. It's been 16 years since citizens have had a choice between a Republican and a Democrat with the depth and natural leadership abilities displayed by challenger Ron Saxton and incumbent Ted Kulongoski.

The two leading candidates for Oregon governor had their first face-to-face confrontation Friday during the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association's annual convention in Welches. Other candidates for governor, including independent Ben Westlund of Bend, weren't invited to the joint appearance. Their absence, however, allowed for a deeper comparison of Saxton and Kulongoski.

Saxton, the Republican, has a more conservative edge than Dave Frohnmayer or Norma Paulus - two former Republican gubernatorial candidates who were part of a long tradition of moderation in Oregon politics. But Saxton ought to stir more mainstream excitement than the most recent Republicans nominated for governor, a list that includes former legislator Kevin Mannix, anti-tax advocate Bill Sizemore and former U.S. Rep. Denny Smith.

While Saxton has the potential to attract independents and hold onto moderate Republicans, that's not to say he doesn't have sharp differences from Kulongoski. During the hourlong debate Friday, Kulongoski attempted to portray Saxton as a corporate lawyer who doesn't care about average Oregonians. Saxton's response was to say that Kulongoski is a lifelong politician and government employee.

On the issues, Kulongoski was passionate about the need to use government to protect the environment. Saxton preferred incentives over regulations. The governor believes continuing problems with the Public Employees Retirement System will decrease over time. Saxton thinks more reforms are needed - and urgently.

There were very few issues - the topics ranged from gambling to health care to school funding - where the candidates were in complete agreement. That means Oregonians will have a distinct choice this fall - not even considering the minor-party and independent candidates who will be on the ballot.

While contrasts are a welcome element of a political campaign, Oregonians also are fortunate that the two leading candidates have some qualities in common: strong leadership skills, the ability to articulate positions and a relatively high-minded tone.

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