John Kitzhaber's hopes for a second go-round in Oregon's governor's office may now depend on how well President Barack Obama succeeded in rekindling partisan enthusiasm at a Portland rally.
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — John Kitzhaber's hopes for a second go-round in Oregon's governor's office may now depend on how well President Barack Obama succeeded in rekindling partisan enthusiasm at a Portland rally.
"I've got a special place in my heart for Oregon," Obama said Wednesday at the event that drew comparisons with one two years ago that attracted the largest crowd to that point in his bid for the Democratic nomination.
Obama is on a western swing to bolster Democratic prospects in the fall election, starting with Kitzhaber, who's in a tight race with Republican Chris Dudley.
On a May Sunday in 2008, Obama drew an estimated 75,000 people — 15,000 more than could get in — to a riverfront park, but the crowd he attracted to the Oregon Convention Center on Wednesday evening was markedly smaller.
The Kitzhaber camp estimated it at 10,000 people, although the hall with a capacity estimated at 10,000 to 11,000 appeared to be no more than two-thirds full.
Obama urged the cheering Democrats to vote quickly and said he knew they would be "fired up" for the campaign's final days.
With ballots arriving in the mailboxes of Oregon voters this week, mailed-in and dropped-off returns are trickling into county elections offices. Votes will be counted in 12 days.
The campaigns have turned their attention to get-out-the-vote drives, which depend on party regulars like the rallygoers to work phone banks and to knock on doors, urging people identified as likely supporters of their candidates to return their ballots.
Kitzhaber, elected in 1994 and re-elected four years later, is seeking an unprecedented third term. Dudley, in his first run for office, has appealed to Oregonians who think Kitzhaber already had a chance as governor, and the state needs a fresh approach to its persistent economic problems.
The poll margins are so narrow that something like an Obama appearance could be decisive, said Tim Hibbitts, a prominent Portland pollster.
"This is such a desperately close race, a point or a half a point could make a difference."
The Kitzhaber campaign hoped the rally would motivate elements of the Democratic base such as young voters who supported Obama two years ago and women.
The president told the audience that "in less than two weeks, you can set the direction of this state and this country."
He paused, and said: "Yes, you can. Yes, you can."
The audience chanted back: "Yes, we can. Yes, we can."
Afterward, rallygoers said they'd respond to Obama call.
"I'll probably do some phone banking, and I hadn't planned on that," said Carol McCormac Wild, who attended the rally with her 14-year-old son, Patrick, a Beaverton High School student.
"I will vote tomorrow," said Graciela Salamanca, a 19-year-old Western Oregon University student. She said she's not feeling an "enthusiasm gap," the idea that youthful voters, strong for Obama in 2008, are disillusioned and not going to participate this year.
But there was evidence of the Democrats' political difficulties.
Dylan Seaman, a 39-year-old unemployed truck driver who said he'd been to the 2008 rally, passed by the convention center Wednesday evening, saying he had to pick up camping gear from a friend.
Two years ago, said Seaman, he was an Obama supporter, but now, "I'm right in the middle of the road."
Oregon's seven-member congressional delegation has six Democrats, but two were notably absent from the rally: Reps. Kurt Schrader and Peter DeFazio. Kitzhaber spokeswoman Jillian Schoene said the two had scheduled events in their districts.
Schrader is a first-termer fighting to survive in a swing district, and like many at-risk Democrats this year, he's tried to put some distance between himself and the party's leaders. DeFazio has long been thought to be entrenched in his southwest Oregon district, but he's been the target of heavy ad buys from the new breed of lightly regulated independent political committees.
Kitzhaber made no bones about aligning himself with Obama, however. Kitzhaber touted the stimulus bill, for example, and Obama's health care overhaul.
"This election is about reaffirming the decision we made two years ago," he said as he introduced Obama.
Dudley was on an Eastern Oregon bus tour Wednesday. A spokeswoman said his comment on Obama's Portland visit was an ad in Wednesday's edition of The Oregonian newspaper, which contains an "open letter" to Obama.
It's a dig at Kitzhaber on education, pointing out an Oregonian story that said education reformers are backing Dudley. In the letter, Dudley tells Obama: "I know we won't agree on every issue. But, you can be sure that I will work with you on the issue of education reform and improving our public schools."