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Southern Oregon governors debate tonight

Gubernatorial candidates will face off in Medford tonight for the final debate in a race that most polls show is neck-and-neck.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski will face challenger Ron Saxton from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. in a debate televised on KOBI Channel 5 and KOTI Channel 2. No third-party candidates have been allowed to participate.

Kulongoski likely will highlight achievements in Jackson County, including the building of a new Amy's Kitchen organic food plant, completion of major transportation projects, expansion at the Medford airport, and the building of a joint Rogue Community College/Southern Oregon University facility in Medford.

Anna Richter-Taylor, spokeswoman for Kulongoski, said the governor also will point to the low unemployment rate in the county, showing how the state's economy has turned around. Jackson County's jobless rate was 4.7 percent in September.

"You will hear the governor talk about how far the state has come in the past four years," she said.

Angela Wilhelms, spokeswoman for Saxton, said the governor hasn't got any reason to brag about the economy.

"Oregon still has the sixth highest unemployment in the nation," she said, citing the U.S. Bureau of Statistics.

The state also ranks poorly on education performance and needs to increase the number of state troopers, said Wilhelms.

"We have an incumbent governor with one of the lowest approval ratings in the nation," she said. "It shows Oregonians aren't happy with the lack of leadership."

A survey completed by Survey USA in October shows 39 percent of Oregonians approve of Kulongoski's performance, while 56 percent disapprove. The survey ranked the governor approval rating at 37th nationwide.

A Sept. 27 voter poll sponsored by The Oregonian and KATU, a Portland television station, had Kulongoski leading Saxton in the race 43 percent to 38 percent.

Gail Beason, chairwoman of the Jackson County Democratic Central Committee, expects the governor won't be shy about responding to negative claims Saxton is likely to throw at him.

"Kulongoski is a fighter," she said.

Saxton has been running negative ads that will only serve to bring out the Democrats this election, said Beason.

Saxton's "pushing hot-button issues without saying what the true story is," she said.

Tiny Robertson, chairman of the Jackson County Republican Central Committee, thinks the state is ready for a change in leadership.

"Look at what we've been doing for the past four years," he said. "Everybody is wanting change."

Robertson said Saxton is willing to work with legislators and to ask for their advice if necessary.

"The thing that Ron has is that he has ideas," said Robertson. "He's not afraid to shoot from the hip."

Both the Republicans and Democrats plan get-togethers to watch the debate and talk with the candidates afterward.

Democrats will gather at 5:45 p.m. at 40 S. Central Ave., Medford, with pizza, beer and soft drinks.

Republicans will gather at 6 p.m. at the Maentz Agency, 830 O'Hare Parkway, and will offer pizza and soft drinks.

Reach reporter at 776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com.