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Oregon GOP needs to decide

Is a litmus test on social issues more important than winning elections?

Former U.S. Sen. Bob Packwood told Oregon Republicans again over the weekend that they need to present a more moderate face to voters if they want to win statewide races. As usual, they ignored him. They do so at their peril.

The occasion was the annual Dorchester Conference, started by Packwood in 1965 as an unofficial gathering of moderate-to-liberal Republicans.

But the rightward swing of the Oregon GOP in recent years has been powerful enough that this year, a group calling itself Oregon Mainstream Republicans held its own luncheon meeting during the conference to hear the mayor of Springfield explain why he had switched parties from Democrat to Republican.

Time was, Dorchester was synonymous with traditional Oregon Republicanism. The list of keynote speakers over the conference's four decades, with few exceptions, reads like a who's who of what used to be the mainstream of the party: Tom McCall, John Dellenback, Mark Hatfield, Vic Atiyeh, Norma Paulus, Dave Frohnmayer.

Now, social-issue conservatives control the state party, and have exerted their influence at Dorchester as well. This year's conference voted 188-89 to oppose civil unions for gay couples. A bill to establish civil unions is being sponsored by a moderate Republican in the Legislature.

State GOP Chairman Kevin Mannix, a conservative politician who narrowly lost the governor's race to Democrat Ted Kulongoski, is running again. He also narrowly lost the straw poll at Dorchester ' to U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, who says he's running only for re-election to Congress.

— Mannix's reaction? My message to Republicans, he said, is there is one candidate who can win the primary ' me.

Mannix may be right. But he's lost a statewide general election twice already ' to Hardy Myers for attorney general in 2000 and to Kulongoski in 2002 ' and next year he'll be running against an incumbent governor. Some observers believe Ron Saxton, a moderate who lost the primary race to Mannix in 2002, could have beaten Kulongoski that November.

Kulongoski's supporters tipped the balance against Mannix with a huge get-out-the-vote effort in the liberal Portland area, where the bulk of Oregonians live. Despite the conservative bent of Oregonians outside the Willamette Valley, the state as whole is still blue, and that worked against Mannix.

The question Republicans should be asking themselves as they look toward 2006 is not who can win the primary, but if the party really wants the governorship, who should win. From where we sit, it's not Kevin Mannix.