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Correction Appended

With less than two weeks to go until voting begins in Oregon’s 5th district primaries, unpredictable contests for the Democratic and Republican nominations have blossomed for the competitive seat being vacated by Rep. Darlene Hooley (D).

Democrats and Republicans in Washington, D.C., tend to silently favor one candidate over another in their respective primaries.

For D.C. Republicans, the choice is wealthy businessman and 2006 nominee Mike Erickson over former state GOP Chairman Kevin Mannix. Democrats, meanwhile, prefer state Sen. Kurt Schrader over ex-gubernatorial aide Steve Marks. But party insiders on both sides of the aisle — including those based in Oregon — describe each primary as too close to call.

Primary day in Oregon is May 20. But voting in the Beaver State is conducted exclusively by mail, and ballots begin arriving in voters’ mailboxes around May 3. Voting tends to be heaviest during the first week after ballots are received and the third and final week before they are due. Voting during the second week is usually light.

“Though we expect a competitive general election regardless of which candidates are nominated, Democrats are confident we will hold Oregon’s 5th Congressional district,” said Yoni Cohen, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “Oregon families want a Democratic Member of Congress committed to change.”

The 5th district stretches from suburban Portland, through timber country to the coast. It includes the state capital of Salem and encompasses five counties, plus portions of two others. President Bush won the district by 1 point in 2000 and 2004, and for years the GOP had held a slight voter registration edge in the district.

But Oregon has been trending increasingly Democratic since Bush was first elected in 2000. The enthusiasm among Democrats in this year’s White House contest has generated a significant uptick in enrolled Democrats statewide, including in the 5th district, where the Democratic Party now reigns with a slight lead.

As of March 31, registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans 149,377 to 145,692, with 79,760 independents, according to the secretary of state’s office. That’s in sharp contrast to where things stood in November 2006, when Republicans led Democrats in enrolled voters, 148,962 to 142,566, with 80,353 independents.

Over six terms, Hooley survived several concerted attempts by Republicans to oust her, winning with as little as 51 percent of the vote in 1996 and as much as 57 percent in 2000. Even in 2006, the best Democratic year in a generation, she managed just 54 percent of the vote against Erickson, who spent $1.8 million, much of it his own, to garner 43 percent.

Democrats and Republicans are both expressing cautious optimism about their chances in the general election, with both sides taking the line that their prospects are good regardless of who emerges from the primary. Because very few House Democrats are retiring, Oregon’s 5th district is one of only two open Democratic-held seats being targeted so far this cycle by the National Republican Congressional Committee.

“With party registration near parity combined with the fact that we have two exceptionally strong candidates vying for the nomination, makes this seat a potential pickup opportunity,” NRCC spokesman Ken Spain said. “This district marks the end of the Oregon Trail, and with [Sen.] John McCain [R-Ariz.] at the top of the ticket, 2008 could mark the end of its Democratic representation in Congress for some time to come.”

With a competitive Democratic Senate primary and excitement over the ongoing Democratic presidential primary, the 5th district contest has been somewhat overshadowed, according to Democratic sources based in Oregon. Thus far, the race has been relatively civil, with neither candidate particularly active in terms of direct mail or radio and television advertisements.

Schrader is viewed as the favorite, and has accrued most of the institutional support, including the endorsement from Gov. Ted Kulongoski (D) and several labor unions. Typical of an underdog, Marks has challenged Schrader to a series of debates. Typical of a favorite, Schrader has rebuffed Marks on all but a few of those challenges.

The DCCC has not endorsed in the primary, but committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) at a briefing with reporters earlier this month talked up Schrader without even mentioning that Marks was running.

Marks has been endorsed by his old boss, former Gov. John Kitzhaber (D), who is working the district hard and headlining fundraisers for his former employee. The Marks campaign has been touting the results of a recent automated SurveyUSA poll that found Schrader ahead in the race 23 points to 20 points, with 57 percent undecided. The poll of 591 likely Democratic primary voters was conducted April 13-15 and had an error margin of 5 points.

The Schrader campaign disputes the accuracy of that poll, saying it doesn’t match with internal data. Still, Schrader’s team conceded that the race is competitive. Schrader actually closed the first quarter of this year with less in cash on hand than Marks, finishing the period with $56,000, compared with $18,000 for the underdog.

“We feel like it’s going pretty well,” Schrader campaign spokesman Paul Gage said.

On the Republican side, state GOP Chairman Vance Day moved last month to try to ensure that the primary did not become a bitter affair that could divide the party and provide the Democrats with fodder to use against the eventual Republican nominee.

In a conference call he held with Erickson and Mannix in March, Day obtained pledges from each candidate to stick to the issues and not go negative against each other, so long as the other doesn’t go negative first. Day also secured promises that the loser would support the winner in the general election, although Erickson promised to do so only if Mannix doesn’t go negative in the primary campaign.

In an April 14 letter sent to Erickson and Mannix, Day thanked each for thus far adhering to their pledge to stay positive, and asked them to keep it up for the duration of the primary contest.

“The voters deserve a clear and straight forward campaign, devoid of those television commercials or mailing which contain grainy black and white images questioning the other candidates’ past personal decisions, financial dealings, or character,” Day wrote.

Erickson was the lone Republican candidate in this race until Hooley announced she would retire. That spurred Mannix, who has twice run unsuccessfully for governor, to jump in. Erickson closed the first quarter of this year with $333,000 on hand, although much of his campaign has been self-financed. Mannix finished the same period with $67,000 on hand.

Mannix has exceedingly high name identification, and is well-liked in Republican circles. But Erickson’s name recognition in the district is decent. He spent heavily on television in the 2006 race, and has been on television in this race for the last month, while simultaneously dropping five mail pieces.

Erickson campaign spokesman Jeff Harvey said his candidate is attempting to draw a contrast with Mannix on the two biggest issues in the race: illegal immigration and the economy. According the SurveyUSA poll, it might be working.

That survey found Erickson leading Mannix 44 points to 40 points, with 17 percent undecided. The poll surveyed 396 likely GOP primary voters, and had an error margin of 5 points.

“Mike is the only candidate in this race who has taken a stance on illegal immigration, and he is the only fiscal conservative,” Harvey said.

Correction: April 23, 2008

The article reported an incorrect cash-on-hand figure for Steve Marks, one of the Democrats in the 5th district race. He had $18,000 in the bank as of March 31.

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