Will Obama visit help or hurt Oregon candidates?

Will Obama visit help or hurt Oregon candidates?
Sen. Barack Obama accepts a University of Oregon jersey from basketball coach Ernie Kent on May 9, 2008.

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — When he returns to Portland for a rally this week, there's no chance Barack Obama will attract 75,000 people, as he did on a sunny May day two years ago.

But his visit will be a chance to take Oregon's temperature for Obama fever.

In 2008, before he beat Hillary Clinton and John McCain, and before the bailouts, the stimulus, the health care bill and the troop surge in Afghanistan, Obama appeared at Tom McCall park on the west bank of the Willamette River and seemed stunned by the crowd of 60,000 people. An estimated 15,000 more couldn't get into the park.

Bigger rallies were ahead as Obama was elected and inaugurated, but the Portland crowd was the largest he'd seen in 15 months of campaigning.

On Wednesday, the president will be on the east bank of the river, indoors, as he tries to stanch Democratic losses by shoring up a governor candidate, John Kitzhaber, in one of the bluest of blue states. The Kitzhaber camp says it hopes to attract 5,000 people to the rally at the Oregon Convention Center.

Two years ago, Obama won the state and swept Democrats along as they turned out a Republican incumbent from the U.S. Senate and secured decisive majorities in the state Legislature. Kitzhaber hopes Obama fever remains strong enough to motivate Democrats to stay with the party and return their ballots, which are arriving in mailboxes this week.

Oregon Democrats have an advantage in voter registration, built over several years and capped by signup drives centered on the Obama campaign two years ago.

That advantage has diminished only slightly — 42 percent of the state's 2.1 million voters are registered as Democrats, 32 percent are registered as Republicans, and the rest are either not affiliated or in minor parties.

So, getting the elements of the 2008 Obama surge to mail in or drop off their ballots is a high priority for Kitzhaber, the former governor who is in what's believed to be a close race with Republican Chris Dudley.

In a year when some Democrats are shying from the president's side, Kitzhaber had no reservation about inviting him, said spokeswoman Jillian Schoene.

"Absolutely none," she said Monday. "We welcome the support of the president of the United States."

Schoene said the Kitzhaber camp hasn't been told what groups Obama might highlight.

Given national polling that suggests his support among young people has cooled markedly, it wouldn't be surprising if Obama pays attention to them.

Nonpartisan efforts to register Oregon college students have turned up strong voter interest at the state's campuses, where nearly 35,000 young people have signed up this year, said Kevin Glidden, spokesman for the Oregon Student Association.

"We're seeing in Oregon that they're not sitting it out," Glidden said. He said the registration drives cover three elections, beginning with a vote in January on tax referendums. The group is distributing 30,000 voter guides, he said, and operating phone banks to remind students to mail in or drop off their ballots.

State Republican leaders say Obama and the Democrats face an "enthusiasm gap," meaning young people and others fervent for Obama two years ago aren't so motivated now — and that's as true in Oregon as it is nationally.

"Things are very different in the nation from 2008 to now," said Greg Leo, state GOP spokesman. "I think the Democrats have reason to be concerned. ... Our base is energized, mobilized and committed."

Obama's approval ratings have sunk to the mid-40 percent level, but Oregon State political scientist Bill Lunch said the president probably has a good share of the support that was manifest at the 2008 rally.

"In the states where he did well ... he retains a higher level of popularity," Lunch said. "I wouldn't be surprised if he has 50 percent or even a little better in Oregon."


Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.