Oregon senator finds voters' mood, and his lead, changed overnight

October 24, 1990|By Paul West | Paul West,Sun Staff Correspondent

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Sen. Mark O. Hatfield awoke one morning earlier this month to find that he very possibly had been transformed into a dead duck.

This unsettling thought arrived in the form of a published poll. It showed that his big 36-point lead in his supposedly easy re-election race had virtually evaporated overnight.

Stunned, the 68-year-old Republican left the capital and flew home to Oregon for the first time in weeks. There, he proceeded to undergo the most remarkable political metamorphosis of this strange and unpredictable election season.

Once known as St. Mark for his high-minded devotion to principle, Mr. Hatfield is now the newest convert to today's slash-and-burn negative politics.

What won't be clear until voters go to the polls next month is whether that transformation will help earn him a fifth term in the Senate.

Mr. Hatfield may now be the most threatened incumbent senator in either party. A new statewide poll, released this week by KATU television in Portland, showed him trailing Democratic challenger Harry Lonsdale, a political newcomer, by 6 percentage points, 50-44.

An institution in Oregon politics, Mr. Hatfield has long prided himself on the old-fashioned way he ran his campaigns.

"The old adage is that Mark Hatfield stands for election. He doesn't run for election," said Bill Calder, the senator's spokesman.

For years, he declined to debate his opponents. He refused even to mention their names, much less assail them personally.

Those habits served him extremely well. He has never lost an election in 40 years.

But now, with Oregon feeling the pain of a difficult transition away from a timber-based economy, voters seem eager for change. A majority of those questioned in the KATU poll, 56 percent, said it was time to send someone new to Washington.

"There is an anti-incumbent mood, obviously, in Oregon like elsewhere in the country," Mr. Hatfield said in a telephone interview from Washington.

If that sentiment crests on Election Day, it could be particularly damaging for Republicans, who can't expect much help from President Bush, currently in political free fall himself as a result of the budget chaos in Washington.

That point was underscored last weekend at the senator's bustling headquarters in downtown Portland. A Hatfield campaign aide, on loan from Sen. Bob Packwood's staff, was loudly passing the word to Washington that, under the circumstances, a planned Bush visit to Oregon would be "political suicide" for Mr. Hatfield.

"We do not want George Bush in the state," said the aide. Mr. Bush has never been particularly popular in Oregon, which has become increasingly Democratic in recent years. In 1988 he lost the state to Michael S. Dukakis.

Mr. Hatfield, while insisting he would welcome the president, goes out of his way to describe himself as a "maverick" who does not hesitate to criticize Mr. Bush, as he has done recently over Persian Gulf policy. And the senator pointedly noted that if Mr. Bush comes to Oregon, it would be on behalf of the GOP gubernatorial candidate, not himself.

Although he still refuses to debate, Mr. Hatfield has angrily denounced Mr. Lonsdale as a liar and a character assassin. He has also launched a series of TV attack ads.

The latest, now airing across the state, condemns Mr. Lonsdale's "hypocrisy" for allegedly dumping toxic waste at his private business while criticizing Mr. Hatfield's environmental record. Mr. Lonsdale denies his company pollutes, and state officials say they know of no environmental hazard at the company.

The senator said he has no choice but to counterpunch. Failing to answer Mr. Lonsdale's charges in September was one reason for his plunge in the polls, he said.

But Mr. Hatfield bristles at the suggestion that he is now just another mudslinging politician.

"I have not put on negative commercials," he insisted. His ads, he maintained, simply "set the record straight."

Unfortunately for Mr. Hatfield, the combative new face he is showing Oregon voters reinforces a central theme of the campaign against him, that "24 years back in Washington really has changed Mark Hatfield," as Mr. Lonsdale's ads claim.

Mr. Lonsdale, a die-hard environmentalist, was on the verge of taking violent action against the cutting of the state's old-growth forests last year. Instead, he decided to take on Mr. Hatfield, as a way of sending a message to the establishment.

"Even I would have said a year ago that Mark Hatfield was unbeatable," he told supporters the other night at a Catholic church in southeast Portland.

Mr. Lonsdale, 58, did not even register as a Democrat until last year (a $100 contribution to Jesse L. Jackson's 1988 presidential campaign had been the extent of his political involvement, he says). A successful small businessman, he has put up $729,000 of his own money.

Besides blaming the senator for encouraging the overcutting of Oregon forests, he is campaigning against Mr. Hatfield's staunch opposition to abortion and against his willingness to accept contributions from political action committees.

Then there's the 24-year jinx. In 1968 voters turned back liberal Democrat Wayne Morse's attempt to win his fifth Senate term. In 1980 Representative Al Ullman lost his seat after 24 years in Washington.

For Mr. Hatfield, both sides agree, the biggest question now is whether the wake-up call came in time.

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