If the first face-to-face confrontation of the two leading candidates for Oregon governor was an indication of the battle ahead, Oregonians will be well served, regardless of who wins the contest.

Incumbent Democratic Governor Ted Kulongoski debated his Republican challenger Ron Saxon in mid July, during the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association's annual meeting and showed just how savvy each candidate is.

The first debate showcased the depth and natural leadership abilities of both candidates, but it was the civil tone that prevailed that was most refreshing. Hopefully Oregonians are in for a contest that will focus on the issues rather than past years of dirty politics and mudslinging.

Saxton, the Republican, is without a doubt more conservative than both Dave Frohnmayer and Norma Paulus-two former Republican gubernatorial candidates who represented a long tradition of moderation in Oregon politics.

Governor Kulongoski stayed close to the Democratic mantra that government could solve many problems better than the private sector.

Regardless of how conservative Saxton really is, or how liberal the incumbent governor comes across, both have qualities that voters are likely to identify with.

During the hour-long debate Kulongoski did a good job of portraying Saxton as a corporate lawyer who does not care about the average Oregonian.

But Saxton fired back referring to Kulongoski as a career lifelong politician and government employee, who had not used his law degree in a day-to-day practice.

The striking thing about the debate was the way the candidates addressed the issues, and by doing so they each showed they approach things in very different ways.

For example Kulongoski believes government should protect the environment. Saxton prefers incentives or regulations.

The governor also made it clear he thinks the Public Employees Retirement System problems will decrease with time, while Saxton believes a major overall is the only long-term answer.

Whether it was gambling, healthcare or school funding, the two candidates proved that Oregonians will have a distinct choice this fall regardless if any other independent candidates end up making the ballot.

All in all Oregonians are in for the best gubernatorial race in years because both Kulongoski and Saxton are proven strong leaders, articulate, principled in their positions and most importantly decent men.

Let's hope they can keep the race on the high road and make this the cleanest, most issue oriented statewide contest in the history of the state.

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