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And now, the main event

Kulongoski and Saxton draw sharp distinctions in debate

Within minutes of the opening of a debate between gubernatorial candidates Ted Kulongoski and Ron Saxton, it was evident that things are indeed different here in Oregon. Neither candidate had made any shocking statement or some dramatic about-face on an issue. But the tone was clear: The primaries are over and the title round has begun.

In his opening remarks, Gov. Kulongoski fired off the first haymaker, accusing Saxton of representing corporate interests rather than working people. Saxton fired back, saying Kulongoski stood for government as usual and had failed to live up to promises made four years earlier.

Neither man made personal attacks; in fact, each praised his opposite as a "good man" who has worked to help the state. But that didn't stop either from raising questions about what is driving the other's agenda.

The general tenor of the debate we are likely to hear over the next three months was clear: Saxton said the incumbent governor will support big government at every turn, while Kulongoski said his Republican challenger will first be a representative of big business.

The pair differed to some degree on just about every issue, including:

Those differences are probably not surprising to most voters, given the politics of the two major parties in recent years. But voters may be surprised to hear the attacks the candidates are launching on each other's approach to government. They should not, however, take those attacks at face value.

Kulongoski is not the ultra-liberal governor Saxton would have you believe. Remember, it was mere months ago that the unions were up in arms against him for his effort to rein in PERS costs. And, contrary to the governor's suggestions, Saxton is not from the "if we pave it, they will come" camp, nor is he likely to embrace the social values of the more conservative members of his party.

But they clearly have more than merely nuanced differences over the direction of the state. The voters will ultimately decide that direction in November, so now is the time to start paying attention to those differences.