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Kulongoski stands out

He faces challengers because he acted as a governor must

Gov. Ted Kulongoski must feel like a duck in a shooting gallery &

8212; except in this one, the other ducks are shooting at him, too. He has come in for criticism from fore and aft, accused of being too liberal and accused of not being a good enough Democrat.

While there is no doubt he has plenty of room for improvement, he also stands out above his primary challengers and has earned our endorsement for the Democratic nomination.

Kulongoski has been the captain of a ship that has been foundering, in large part to circumstances far beyond any captain's control. To his credit, he has attempted to build coalitions across party lines, recognized that voters were in no mood for new taxes and taken some tough stances that cost him support among traditional allies.

There were successes along the way. The state emerged from a years-long recession as the governor aggressively pushed for public and private investment in the economy. Oregon lost its designation as "the hungriest state" in the nation and now stands closer to the midpoint in hunger statistics. The Public Employees Retirement System was brought partially under control, saving the state and local governments hundreds of millions of dollars in retirement costs.

It is that stance on PERS that has cost him the support of some traditional allies, including the teachers' union. It was a stance that perhaps a politician wouldn't take, but one that a governor had to take. In the end, he decided that providing services to school kids, the elderly and the needy were more important that defending a Cadillac retirement plan for public employees. The presence of two strong Democratic opponents, former state Treasurer Jim Hill and Lane County Commissioner Pete Sorenson, shows the depths of the disaffection with the incumbent. But they spend too much time criticizing Kulongoski and too little time fleshing out a cohesive plan of their own.

Both Hill and Sorenson say the state's revenue woes could be greatly reduced by putting more financial expectations on corporations that now pay little or no taxes. They both note that major corporations once paid 18 percent of the tax total and now pay only about 5 percent. They're right, but they offer no plan to raise that rate in a tax-averse Legislature and no evidence of a fallback plan if the effort fails.

If Kulongoski is re-elected, he must take a firmer grip on the reins of government and be a more visible and more vocal advocate for fixing what ails Oregon. If he does that and gets a stronger economy and state budget to work with, he can be the governor we all hoped for four years ago.

The GOP's best hopeOregon was a Blue State in the last presidential election and routinely elects Democrats to statewide offices, especially in the governor's office. Yet vast tracts of the state are Red and Republican so the extended GOP drought seems a bit odd &

8212; until you examine the candidates.

In the past three gubernatorial elections, Republican have nominated Kevin Mannix, Bill Sizemore and Denny Smith, all three noted for extreme conservatism in one form or another. The last best hope for a Republican governor came in 1990 with moderate Dave Frohnmayer, but his campaign was undermined by an ultra-conservative candidate who drew away Republican votes.

Has the GOP gotten the message that a majority of Oregonians want a governor focused on what's best for the state rather than on conservative ideology? If it has, the party's voters will nominate Ron Saxton when the ballots are tallied May 16.

Make no mistake, Saxton is a conservative. He has the backing of many of the state's business leaders, including those in the timber industry, and touches all the fiscal bases in his call for a more efficient and streamlined government.

But he stays clear of hot-button social issues like abortion that sell well in May but turn sour in November. His focus turns again and again to how the state can run more efficiently, whether it's through privatizing some state functions, reforming PERS or reducing the "hassle tax" on business.

Saxton, a former member of the Portland School Board, has won few friends in the school employee ranks with his tough talk on PERS. But make no mistake, he supports education, in part because he recognizes it is a key component in improving the state's economic prospects.

Mannix, who has lost three consecutive statewide races, is bringing a softer touch to this campaign, but still regularly rings the conservative bell. He says counties should generally be able to set their own land-use rules, promises to "clear out the management deadwood in Salem" and proudly calls himself "the father" of Oregon's get-tough-on-crime Measure 11.

Mannix also has baggage: debts from his last race, partisan stands taken as state's Republican Party chairman and a reputation for hitting below the belt in the final days of his campaigns.

Jason Atkinson, meanwhile, is an articulate and likeable candidate. He brings some handicaps into the race, including age 35 and rural roots in Southern Oregon. Many suspect this effort is a precursor to a future statewide or congressional run.

In the Legislature since 1998, Atkinson has risen in the Senate leadership ranks and stands to be a player in the coming session. His priorities recently have included a push to fund education first and support of Jessica's Law against sexual predators, which passed in the recent special session. He's a long shot in this governor's race, but don't expect him to fade from the political scene anytime soon.

Republicans have three viable candidates to choose from in May. Their best choice for a win in November is Ron Saxton.