Oregon gov's race matches seasoned pro, fresh face

Oregon gov's race matches seasoned pro, fresh face
John Kitzhaber and Chris Dudley, the 2010 Democratic and Republican gubernatorial candidates

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - Chris Dudley wasn't given much of a chance when he got into the Oregon governor's race.

He had no real political experience, and his main claim to fame was a 17-year NBA career in which he was one of the worst free-throw shooters in basketball. He has struggled in debates and acknowledged that he didn't vote much during his basketball career.

But Dudley may have a chance to defeat former two-term Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber, thanks to a remarkable fundraising effort that has drawn on his connections from pro sports and interest from the national GOP.

Dudley has raised $8 million and had $2 million on hand as of Monday, according to his fundraising report. Among his backers are Nike founder Phil Knight, former teammate Terry Porter, sports agent Daniel Fegan, Florida Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria and timber interest groups.

Kitzhaber has raised $4.5 million and had about $1 million of that on hand, according to his fundraising filing. Among his biggest backers are public-employee and education unions and the health care industry.

Kitzhaber gets a helping hand this week when the president visits Portland, hoping that the Obama fever that energized young voters here during the presidential election will lift Kitzhaber over Dudley.

Dudley, meanwhile, has kicked off a weeklong bus tour of the state.

Their campaign mantras: Kitzhaber represents old ideas that won't work anymore, and Dudley lacks the experience to be governor and tackle Oregon's problems.

Oregon has a $3 billion deficit in its next two-year budget cycle, increasing labor costs and one of the highest jobless rates in the country.

"I can go down to Salem on Day One and get my arms around this budget crisis," Kitzhaber said recently. "I want to actually create jobs today, not tomorrow."

Dudley has been suggesting that Oregon's current economic policies are a continuation of Kitzhaber's from his first stint as governor — and they don't work.

"We have to get out of the mindset that we've been on for too long — more taxes, more taxes, more taxes," Dudley said.

There have been no polls on the race aside from those that rely on autodialed calls. Each camp is treating the election as if it were close.

The campaign has shifted to a flurry of attack ads in recent days.

In one ad, the announcer says that "Kitzhaber failed as governor," that he "left our schools in crisis," and is responsible for "chronic unemployment" in Oregon.

Dudley had also released ads portraying himself as a man who was able to overcome all obstacles — he rose to the ranks of the NBA despite having diabetes. In one ad, Billy Hunter, head of the NBA Players Association, says of the 6-foot-11 former center: "The guy was always a hard worker. He was tenacious, dogged, highly respected."

The Kitzhaber camp has sought to portray the 45-year-old Dudley as an outsider who has little in common with middle-class Oregonians and is a friend of the wealthy.

The Kitzhaber campaign has hounded Dudley for his admission that while he was still with the Blazers he owned a house in Washington state to avoid paying some income taxes, and over revelations that Dudley took a $350,000 tax write-off for letting the Lake Oswego fire department burn his home next to a golf course as a training exercise.

Kitzhaber, 63, has played up his own strong roots with the state, pointing out that he was raised here, was a practicing emergency room doctor, served in the state Legislature, was instrumental in developing a health plan for low and moderate-income families and their children, and was twice elected governor.

A solidly blue state, Oregon has not had a Republican governor since Vic Atiyeh, who was elected in 1978 and served two terms. But the Dudley campaign is trying to appeal to voters who believe that because Kitzhaber already served two terms he is old news.

There are plenty of people in Oregon who are ready to vote for Dudley — even though to many he is still an unknown. They include 81-year-old Patricia Bell of Baker City.

"Really I don't know much about (Dudley), but I don't like what Kitzhaber did when he was governor," Bell said.

Still, registration numbers favor the Democrats and if Kitzhaber is able to energize his base he could win.

Governor from 1994 to 2002, Kitzhaber has been a popular political figure in years past. Dressed in jeans, cowboy boots and a big belt buckle, Kitzhaber as governor benefited from his public persona as a maverick who had little patience with efforts by either party to block his agenda.

He rode a wave of 1990s economic booms in the state and nationally while reducing Oregon's welfare caseload and insuring more low-income children. But his last term ended with skyrocketing unemployment and sluggish revenues.

Dudley retired from the NBA in 2003, and eventually made his way to the Portland wealth management firm M Financial. He is also founder of a charity for diabetic children.

It's the lack of government experience that could hurt Dudley.

"I don't think he has the experience or credentials," said Elisa Black, a 36-year-old stay at home mom living in Portland. "I don't think he'll help our already crumbling social structure and dwindling middle class."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.