For Gore, a battle for green territory

Pacific Northwest is cool to reputed environmentalist

Election 2000

October 24, 2000|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

PORTLAND, Ore. - With his environmentalist credentials, Al Gore might have expected to lock up the Pacific Northwest long ago.

Instead, the vice president is battling George W. Bush for supremacy in the land of the spotted owl and the endangered salmon, which has emerged as one of the unlikeliest battlegrounds in the country this fall.

"The race is dead even," Gore told several thousand supporters at a Portland rally Sunday night. "Oregon is dead even."

Two weeks before Election Day, Gore is trailing Bush in some national polls and is in a statistical tie in others. He will spend much of this week in Arkansas, Iowa, West Virginia and his own Tennessee, states that went Democratic in recent elections but aren't nailed down.

The same is true in Oregon and Washington, where the vice president campaigned yesterday. Gore is running no better than even with Bush in both states, which Democrats Michael S. Dukakis and Bill Clinton swept in the past three presidential elections.

Gore's late-October struggles in the Northwest, with fresh snow burying the Cascade Range and early voting under way, are viewed as ominous for the Democrat.

"If you had told me three months ago that Bush would win this state, I would have been extremely surprised," says Tim Hibbitts, an independent pollster in Portland.

Cary Evans, who is running the Republican campaign in Oregon, says, "Things haven't looked better for us in these states in 16 years."

Evans, a former executive director of the Washington state Republican Party, says the Northwest has leaned somewhat more Republican over the past decade, as the high-tech boom has lured conservative newcomers and the declining timber industry has brought economic pain to rural areas.

Gore's problems in this corner of the country are the flip side of Bush's in Florida, where Bush has not secured a Republican state in which his younger brother, Jeb, serves as governor. In a close election, Washington and Oregon's combined 18 electoral votes could be as vital to Gore's chances as the Sunshine State's 25 electoral votes are for Bush.

In some ways, what's wrong with Gore in the Northwest is a reflection of his weaknesses elsewhere, including negative attitudes toward him personally, which seem to be negating his perceived advantage on issues.

The Nader factor

But there are other factors that set these states apart and have created unexpected headaches for the Democrat. Foremost among them is the presence of Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate, who could siphon enough support from Gore to tip a tight race to Bush. There are perhaps a half-dozen states where, politicians say, the Nader vote could make a difference. They include Oregon and Washington, plus Minnesota, Michigan, Maine and Wisconsin.

Oregon was Nader's best state in 1996 and is shaping up that way again. Recent polls show him drawing close to 8 percent support, roughly double what he's getting nationally.

Democrats predict that that number will drop by Election Day, as some Nader supporters drift to Gore for fear of giving the presidency to Bush. But Nader received nearly 4 percent of the vote here four years ago, when he didn't bother to campaign, and his supporters predict that he will top 10 percent when the votes are counted this time.

Politicians in the Northwest say that many of the Nader voters aren't available to either Gore or Bush. The unshakable Green vote includes elements of the anti-free trade movement that protested, with Nader, at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, as well as others alienated by the increasing role that corporations play in major-party politics and hard-line environmentalists angry over Clinton administration policies.

Gore's campaign chairman, William M. Daley, says he is optimistic about Democratic Party chances in Washington state but somewhat less so in Oregon, which he calls a "tough" state. Democrats may soon start airing commercials aimed at convincing Green Party voters that Nader is a spoiler who could elect Bush, said Daley.

Environmental leaders and Democratic Party officials, including the state's popular governor, John Kitzhaber, pressed that argument the other day at a news conference on the banks of the Willamette River. But their remarks reflected the ambivalence of many Northwesterners toward the Clinton administration's environmental record and Gore's role as a leading policy-maker in that area.

"You may not feel good about a vote for Gore, but you'll feel worse if George W. Bush is elected," said Kitzhaber, the lone Democratic governor to support Bill Bradley's candidacy and the only one to skip the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles.

A matter of principles

Andy Kerr, a leader in efforts to save the northern spotted owl, contended that "to protect the environment, one has to rise above principles" and support Gore.

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