Jackson County, once seen as a conservative bastion that was often sidestepped by Democrats seeking statewide office, has emerged this election cycle as a regular stop on the campaign trail.

Three candidates vying for the chance to unseat Republican Sen. Gordon Smith have made swings through the Rogue Valley, and Democrats running for Oregon secretary of state and attorney general have made campaign announcements in Medford recently.

State Sen. Kate Brown, the Portland Democrat running for Oregon secretary of state, will be in Medford today as part of her five-city kick-off tour.

In an interview Wednesday, she said that the Rogue Valley has grown economically and in terms of influence.

"It's a happening area" in the state, she said, noting that as the Senate majority leader, she met regularly with representatives from the Medford Chamber of Commerce.

Paulie Brading of Medford, chairwoman of the Jackson County Democratic Party, said "a lot has changed" in the local political climate over the last few years.

"There is a blue tinge now to Jackson County, and now when Democratic candidates come here they see that we can now lay out the red carpet for them and voters turn out to hear them," she said in a telephone interview.

Brading, as the county's Democratic Party leader, has been host to visiting candidates recently, including U.S. Senate contenders Oregon House Speaker Jeff Merkley of Portland and political activist and attorney Steve Novick, as well as Brown and John Kroger, who is running for state attorney general.

She said a significant change in the county's demographics combined with widespread dissatisfaction among independent-minded Republicans with President Bush and party politics and ideology has been a boon for the local Democratic Party.

"It's becoming more and more difficult to feel comfortable being a Republican right now," Brading said. "A lot of local Republicans feel like they have been led astray and orphaned by the GOP," particularly in issues of fiscal responsibility and civil liberties.

Moreover, she said on a local level, Republicans who are moving into Jackson County from other states arrive with the expectation that their new local government would provide a "good, efficient" level of service.

"They expect library boxes on every corner," she said, "and they are disappointed after they get here."

Sometimes, she explained, that is all it takes to push people, particularly retirees, to vote Democratic.

Brian Platt of Medford, chairman of the Jackson County Republican Party, agrees that the local GOP has seen a deflection locally, but argues that just because some voters might have left the Republican Party officially does not mean that they are now voting Democratic.

"They are not necessarily changing their political philosophy as much as they do not want to be affiliated officially with the Republican Party," Platt said, adding that Jackson County is still a solidly Republican county.

There are two notable aberrations in local Republican dominance, however.

Take Democratic state Sen. Alan Bates' win in the 3rd State Senate District, which has a Republican voter registration advantage. Then there is Dave Gilmour, the Central Point physician who won election to the county Board of Commissioners in 2002 after running on a solidly Democratic, pro-environmental platform in a county where Republicans outnumber Democrats by about 10,000 voters.

Speaking of Bates, Platt said more than the allure of his left-leaning politics, Bates' race against Republican Jim Wright was tipped to the Democrats after the Salem-based Leadership Fund painted him as a deadbeat dad in two "hit pieces" the group mailed to local voters detailing a 20-year-old child custody battle that Bates had with his ex-wife.

Platt said that "disgusting and stupid" attack ad was enough to push the balance to Alan Bates in what up to that time was virtually a neck-and-neck race. "One thing that Southern Oregonians resent is kibitzing from people up north," he added.

In an interview earlier this week, Bates acknowledged that Southern Oregon's Republican roots run deep, but he said locally Republicans are "thoughtful, socially judicious and fiscally conservative," much like centrist Democrats are in the region.

"When you get a moderate Republican from this area and a moderate Democrat from this area lined up with each other, we're pretty similar," Bates said. "That's why I was probably able to get elected as a Democrat &

because I am fiscally I am quite conservative and socially I'm pretty progressive."

Bates said that political mix "rings a common bell for both Republicans and Democrats down here," noting that the county is still a Republican stronghold, but not a wellspring of neo-conservatism that some have said it is.

In Medford, he said, voters have vacillated between electing Republican and Democrat state legislators historically. "They are basically Republicans and given an equal choice they tend to fall to the Republican side, but they are swing voters," Bates said of West and East Medford voters.

Bob Murphy, a political science instructor at Rogue Community College, said Lakeview to Coos Bay is undoubtedly Republican territory.

"We're still pretty conservative, not supporting tax measures down around here," Murphy said. "We're not that hotbed of liberalism in Eugene, but Ashland is the exception."

Bill Maentz, a leading Republican campaign strategist in the region, said the appeal of registering as an independent among voters and the growth of minor parties is a strong testament to Southern Oregon's frustration with the two-party system.

Political candidates, he said, ought to run on "common sense and their true beliefs" and less on their party's beliefs on particular issues.

Abortion, for instance, is one of the issues that "really confuses" the two party system and "disconnects people" from the party they might most closely identify with otherwise, he said.

"Our population has come to the middle on a number of issues that tends to push them to the outside on some issues," he said. "There is a lot of Democrats who have strong religious beliefs on abortion, and there are a lot of Republicans who are pro-choice."

Moreover, "There is a shift toward an environmental understanding. We all being Southern Oregonians love to see beautiful trees and beautiful forests, and the environment is seen as a core Democratic value," he said.

Maentz, who is Medford state Rep. Sal Esquivel's campaign strategist, said recent elections have been won and lost in the independent group, which accounts for about one-in-five voters in the county.

He added that while Jackson County still has a Republican registration edge, local voters are not voting down party lines as much as they have in the past.

"It's an interesting dynamic down here," Maentz said. "People are thinking more about their vote and thinking more about the people they are voting for regardless of their political affiliation."

Just take Esquivel and Democratic Rep. Peter Buckley of Ashland, whom he said have forged a unique collaboration in a hyper-partisan environment, working together on issues of mutual concern.

"Those two are what I consider modern statesman," Maentz said. "They run in a party environment to get elected then they act as statesman when they get to Salem."

covers politics for the Ashland Daily Tidings. He can be reached at csrizo@hotmail.com.