Political experts analyze gov. hopefuls

    In the 16th minute of the final Oregon gubernatorial debate last Tuesday, Republican challenger Ron Saxton began by asking Democratic incumbent Ted Kulongoski about bi-partisanship.

    ”Governor,” Saxton said, “you’ve talked for years about bi-partisanship-” It was the ninth time during the debate that Saxton had referred to his opponent by his title.

    In each of the four campaign debates over the last month, Saxton has used the word “governor” repeatedly, including five times in his most recent introductory statement.

    ”That’s a mistake,” said Jim Moore, political analyst and political science professor at Pacific University. “He’s playing on the governor’s name familiarity and incumbency.”

    ”If I were advising Saxton, I’d say, ‘Call him Ted.’ Calling him ‘governor’ puts him on a pedestal, making him harder to knock down, and acknowledges his position,” Moore said.

    Moore and two other political analysts deconstructed the messages the gubernatorial candidates have purposefully or unintentionally communicated to Oregonians though the debates and the candidate’s television ads. The analysts looked at the candidate’s language in the debates and television ads to better understand what the candidates’ words actually mean.

    When Kulongoski questioned Saxton moments earlier in the last debate, he used his opponent’s first name. “Ron, every time I hear you talking about how you are going to come up with more money,” Kulongoski said.

    When Kulongoski uses the less formal term, Moore said, he is trying to shift the focus to the problem or question at hand, and away from the person.

    A different interpretation came from Chris Carey, an assistant Portland State University professor and debate consultant, who felt that Saxton might be using the title to his advantage.

    ”Not calling a person by his proper name depersonalizes that opponent,” Carey said. “The term ‘governor’ is so much bigger than Ted Kulongoski, and using it triggers things in people’s minds. If you are against the government, then mentioning the word ‘governor’ makes it easy to link those two things.”

    Saxton also used the word “change” five times in that same introductory statement and then again three times in response to Kulongoski’s question.

    The word caught the attention of Regina Lawrence, associate professor and chair of political science at the Hatfield School of Government, and her students. She has been discussing the debates with her class, named media, opinion and voting. Noticing the frequent use of the word, some students had even counted how many times it was said.

    She said that “[Saxton’s] challenge is to fire the incumbent – he talks an awful lot about things not being good in Oregon, using the word ‘change’ many times in that debate,” Lawrence said.

    Carey said that Saxton has clearly sent a message to the public about change. “He has a much easier position, without anything to defend,” Carey said. “All that he has to do is list the problems, which is analogous with a classic law debate of the prosecution versus the defense.”

    The final debate was held in Medford last Tuesday, was televised throughout that region and later aired across the state on OPB television and radio. The previous debate was held in Portland, on Tuesday Oct. 17, and was televised statewide on KGW TV.

    In the four debates, the opponents have hammered one another over their leadership capabilities, differing viewpoints on Ballot Measure 48, taxes, and how to improve government’s efficiency.

    Lawrence said the topics the candidates have not discussed at length are just as interesting. “One thing I haven’t seen much of is the two candidates trying to nationalize this election. Saxton really tries to avoid national issues and keep the focus on local ones,” she said, adding that Kulongoski has room to further leverage Democrats with their attempts at making a referendum on Republican rule.

    Lawrence said that the consensus within her class was that choosing a winner in these debates was a close call. “This is not a situation where you have candidates so clearly advantaged over one another in terms of their rhetorical abilities or the issues,” Lawrence said.

    In the end, according to Moore, the debates may not have much of an impact on voters. Debates, he said, get less attention from voters than television ads and the voter’s pamphlet. “Even undecided voters tend to not watch the debates. That’s because you have to watch really hard to get any useable information about the candidates,” Moore said.


Have you noticed?Jim Moore said-Ron Saxton tends to slip into a lisp when he gets tired. Take a listen to his first commercial with the stopwatch ticking away time.Chris Carey said-People have told him that when Ron Saxton is hammering Ted Kulongoski with a particularly negative point, Kulongoski will look at his wife with a content smile on his face.