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Bush, NRCC on the Oregon Trail

GOP Hopes President’s Coattails Help Beaver State House Candidates

House Republican leaders believe President Bush’s ambitious strategy of targeting states in 2004 that he lost in the 2000 White House election could pay dividends in Oregon House races, though Democrats insist the GOP is just dreaming.

National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) said Friday that he and Rep. Greg Walden (Ore.), the lone Republican in the state’s House delegation and vice chairman of the NRCC recruiting effort, are aiming to pick up seats in the Beaver State.

“There just seems to be interest out there [among Republicans],” Reynolds said. “I like that. The president needs Oregon. We just seem to have good candidates out there.”

Oregon has fallen into the Democratic column in the past four presidential elections. But in 2000, Bush — aided perhaps by Ralph Nader’s 5 percent of the vote — lost by just a half-point, or 6,500 raw votes.

Republicans think they have a good chance of defeating four-term Rep. Darlene Hooley (D) in the swing Willamette Valley 5th district. And while the Portland-based 1st district seat of Rep. David Wu (D) is a tougher bet for the GOP, wealthy stock broker Tim Phillips has just entered the Republican race, and party leaders believe he has a chance.

“We’ve looked to take back that district for a long time,” said Amy Casterline, executive director of the Oregon Republican Party.

Oregon, which prospered more than most states during the economic boom of the late 1990s, has been hit particularly hard by the recession. After voters rejected a ballot measure earlier this year that would have authorized the state to raise an array of taxes, the state government has had to make severe cuts to programs and services. The length of the school year has been shortened drastically as a result.

Republicans are banking on voters blaming a succession of Democratic governors, rather than Bush, for the state’s economic woes, and for the school cutbacks in particular.

“Our once high-rated schools are being ridiculed in national comics,” said Phillips, referring to a recent series in the Doonesbury comic strip.

Jim Zupancic, a business lawyer and former Lake Oswego Board of Education president who is one of the Republicans seeking Hooley’s seat, is using the same theme in his campaign.

“We need new funding sources for education in Oregon, and new accountability measures,” he said.

The 5th district GOP race is not quite shaping up the way political observers expected it would. The potential 800-pound gorilla in the field was Kevin Mannix, the state GOP chairman and unsuccessful gubernatorial nominee in 2002. But Mannix dropped out early, saying he wanted to focus on building the party for the 2006 governor’s race.

State Rep. Jeff Kropf (R) was also expected to enter the race. He traveled to Washington, D.C., in February to meet with NRCC officials and leaders of various conservative interest groups in preparation for a campaign. But while he hasn’t made a formal announcement, Kropf has put out the word in state GOP circles that he isn’t running for Congress.

Brian Boquist, a Salem businessman who took 43 percent of the vote as the Republican nominee against Hooley in 2000 and 45 percent last year, was also expected to make the race — and still is. But Boquist, a military reservist, has told associates that he has been called up to active duty. It is not clear, however, where he will be serving and for how long — or whether his ability to campaign would be impeded.

Boquist did not respond to phone messages left last week at his home and at his campaign phone number.

Then there is Zupancic, who spent $430,000 in 2002 in a close losing race for a state House seat in a Democratically leaning district. He is a 51-year-old high-tech entrepreneur and international lawyer who places himself somewhere between the conservative “Mannix wing” of the Oregon GOP and the liberal “Packwood wing” epitomized by former Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.).

“I don’t want to jump too heavily into either of those camps,” he said. “I am a thinking Republican.”

Zupancic has already hired Republican consultants Kieran Mahoney and Greg Strimple to guide his campaign. Both have worked for Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.).

Although he is personally wealthy, Zupancic seems reluctant to pour his resources into a House campaign beyond what he calls “seed capital.” But he did say: “I’m committed to do what it takes to win.”

Casterline, the state GOP director, said a race between Boquist and Zupancic would be hard to handicap. Conservative activists, she said, are loyal to Boquist, but some may be willing to try someone new after two defeats.

“A lot of the base may want to go with the pragmatism,” she said.

There is at least one other potential Republican candidate in the 5th: state Sen. Jackie Winters (R), a black restaurateur. But she has shown no signs so far of preparing for a campaign.

Joan Mooney, Hooley’s chief of staff, said her boss “will be prepared” for whomever the Republicans put up.

“Darlene is an incredibly popular candidate in a very tough district [for a Democrat],” she said.

Since knocking off conservative freshman Rep. Jim Bunn (R) with 51 percent of the vote in 1996, Hooley has won re-election with showings in the mid-50s. But the district has a decidedly Republican look, and Bush took 49 percent of the vote there in 2000 (Democrat Al Gore took 47 percent, while Nader matched his statewide figure, 5 percent).

Meanwhile, in the 1st, Phillips — whose firm, Phillips & Co. Securities, is one of the top five brokerage houses in Portland — is poised to take on Wu. Phillips, who is 37, said he will need $1.8 million to compete, and believes that can be achieved with “some small component of self-funding.”

“He’s good to go,” said Casterline. “He’s ready to raise money and prepare for a good campaign.”

But the 1st, a district that takes in western Portland and suburban communities like Beaverton (home to Nike’s headquarters), is fairly liberal. Gore took 51 percent of the vote there to Bush’s 45 percent, while Nader again got about 5 percent. Wu had a close race when he was first elected in 1998 by just 3 points, but hasn’t had to sweat re-election since.

Still, Phillips is undaunted, and says the current Republican agenda should sell well in the district.

“I think the numbers are fairly balanced,” he said. “It’s a question of the issues we face.”

Reynolds said the NRCC is lucky this year, because the White House re-election team is laying the groundwork in key states like Oregon.

“That’s what I like about the Bush campaign,” he said. “They have their targets and they know how to do it. A lot of the work is already done.”

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