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Identity crisis


Who is the Oregon GOP and will the party figure it out by next year?

Once upon a time, people knew what it meant to be an Oregon Republican. You didn't want to break the bank, but you had a heart and a concern for Oregon's beauty, and everyone knew it.

You cared about the state's livability. You held the line on taxes. You sat, at least by other states' standards, closer to the middle than to the right.

Today, though, there's no easy way to define you. You're fractured, and the cracks are showing more all the time, including, now, in the 2006 race for governor.

What cracks? By early this week, three Republicans had entered the GOP side of the race and a fourth was thinking about it. Jason Atkinson, Kevin Mannix, Ron Saxton and Ben Westlund could hardly be stranger bedfellows, yet here they all are under one party banner, each telling Oregon he has the answers.

Mannix, a former party chairman and previous candidate for governor, is stationed at far right, pounding home messages about waste in Salem. Atkinson, the state senator from Central Point, leans Mannix's direction but talks generously about education. Saxton, a Portland lawyer and past gubernatorial candidate, sits firmly in a muddy gray area and calls himself moderate. And Westlund, a state senator who is still debating a run, is so liberal he might as well be a Democrat.

Oregonians are desperate for leadership. We can't think of a time that criticism of state government, including the governor's office, has been as high as it is today. Much of it, of course, has been directed at the Democratic leadership of Gov. Ted Kulongoski.

— And yet if Republicans have the answers, it's not evident in the large group of candidates whose beliefs are so dissimilar that a vote amounts to choosing not only a leadership style but a basic political philosophy.

Early ambivalence among voters is clear in the results of a poll this month by Portland pollsters Riley Research Associates.

It found Republicans scattered: 31 percent liked Mannix, 9 percent Saxton and 5 percent Atkinson, who didn't announce his candidacy until halfway through the polling period. Even Kulongoski, the Democratic governor who's taken a beating from all sides this year, picked up 13 percent of the GOP voters.

Interesting as that may be, it doesn't speak well for bringing Oregon together or helping the state establish a direction.

Instead it confirms what's been clearer by the year, that the GOP is no longer speaking with a collective voice.

If it has the answer to Oregon's woes, even the politicians haven't settled on it yet.