Three men work to shape their messages in primary fight, one press release at a time

As the clock ticks toward the 2012 primary season, David Wu, the incumbent Democrat representing the first Congressional district, and two challengers are engaged in cold war, with each trying to cement their image in the minds of voters.

Brad Avakian, Oregon's labor commissioner, and the first Democrat to announce a bid against Wu, touted his quarterly fundraising efforts last week. He now has $124,003 on hand against Wu's $342,762.

Brad Witt, a Clatskanie state Representative who entered the race this month, is working to establish himself as an idea-driven reformer with an eye toward Washington County, the center of the congressional district.

While Wu, with more than 10 years in Congress, is issuing a flurry of press releases underlining his interest in science and technology, along with red meat liberal stands aimed at rallying his Democratic base.

Wu slid effortlessly into reelection last fall against Republican challenger Rob Cornilles in spite of a national GOP wave that returned the House of Representatives to Republican control.

But this February, reports in Willamette Week and The Oregonian detailed a massive defection of Wu's staff following what the congressman called a stress-induced period of bad behavior.

The events culminated in the Congressman sending photos of himself dressed as a tiger to campaign staff.

That led political strategists to think Wu, a tough campaigner who has held his seat with relative ease since snatching the Democratic nomination in 1998, could be vulnerable.

Avakian was the first to step into the race in April.

Since then, Avakian has worked hard to present himself as the best option for Democrats who'd like to replace Wu, even releasing internal polling data that showed his relative strength against other potential challenger, Suzanne Bonamici, a Beaverton Democrat that was appointed to Avakian's senate seat when he became Labor Commissioner.

In a release last week, Avakian tried to contrast his fundraising efforts, with 95 percent of the money coming from Oregon, with Wu's fundraising, where 92 percent of funds came from out-of-state donors.

Jim Moore, who teaches political science at Pacific University, said what really matters now is the total raised, not where it comes from.

'Avakian is looking good, but he must keep up the momentum in the reporting periods to come,' Moore said.

Every new entrant to the race helps Wu, Moore said, as the primary vote fractures, the incumbent has the opportunity to win with a mere plurality of the vote.

And while each challenger must pit themselves against Wu, they also need to differentiate themselves from the other challengers.

'In these situations, voters tend to go with what they know - the incumbent,' Moore said.

A poll conducted by SurveyUSA shortly after Wu's scandal broke showed he lost significant support among the general electorate, but retained the support of 54 percent of those Democrats polled.

A newer, statewide poll by Public Policy Polling put his favorability rating at 16 percent, with 50 percent unfavorable and 34 percent unsure of their opinion of Wu.

With the large sample size, opposition to Wu could swing as much as 15 points either way, but it shows the news is sticking, but not enough to eliminate Wu's chance of holding his core supporters in the primary.

'Wu is looking like a solid incumbent, so the scandal coverage has not made that big a dent in his fundraising abilities,' Moore said.

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