State Democrats gather at Summit conference

SALEM, Ore. (AP) – More than 450 Democratic officeholders and party activists plan to gather at Central Oregon’s Sunriver resort this weekend for a pre-election year event focused on goals and strategy for the 2006 campaigns.


The governor’s race is getting all the buzz on the campaign circuit, as a potentially prickly May primary election contest develops.


Since January, Lane County Commissioner Peter Sorenson has been mounting a campaign to challenge Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski in the primary. State Sen. Vicki Walker, D-Eugene, has also said she will take on Kulongoski in the primary if she can get enough financial backing, and Democratic state Sen. Rick Metsger might also joint the fray.


The governor, who’s seeking a second term, and all three real and potential rivals plan to attend the event, dubbed the Democratic Summit.


So does a big new wild card, former Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber.


Kitzhaber last month told a reporter that while some people have suggested a comeback bid, he has no plans to run. But he didn’t flatly rule it out, sparking plenty of speculation.


Kulongoski was elected in 2002 to succeed Kitzhaber, who by law couldn’t serve a third consecutive term. Now, though, Kitzhaber could legally run again.


At any rate, the agenda has no slots for office seekers to square off. The party avoids taking sides in party primary nominating races.


"The focus is how we come together collectively to be a stronger party," said Neel Pender, executive director of the Oregon Democratic Party.


Sorenson has assailed Pender for not giving him an agenda spot to speak, saying party leaders want to "silence open debate."


But Pender said he declined Sorenson’s attempt to "hijack our agenda." As governor, Pender said Kulongoski was asked to give opening remarks and that no other announced challengers sought time to speak.


"The field is not set. Most candidates for offices have not even filed" for election, Pender said. "And we’re not going to get involved in the primary."


Contenders have until March 7 to file to run in the May primary.


The relatively new event, dubbed the Democratic Summit, is seen as the Democrats’ version of the long-running Republican Dorchester Conference, an annual coastal gathering.

The informal GOP meeting has no official connection to the state Republican Party, while the Democratic event is put on by the party.


The summit began in 2001 as an event emphasizing nut-and-bolts of running election campaigns. This year the idea isn’t electioneering mechanics but policy and "bringing people together before the heat of the campaigns," Pender said.


"We’ve got to be able to have a clear message, and we haven’t always succeeded in that," he said.


The discussions will be as far-reaching as the Iraq War and as local as state school funding and the diminishing Oregon Health Plan.


A good Saturday dinner crowd is assured with the keynote speaker being former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, the husband of Valerie Plame.


Disclosures through the press that Plame worked as an undercover CIA agent led to a federal investigation that remains active.


Wilson claims his wife’s occupation was leaked by the Bush administration as retribution for his public suggestions that the administration manipulated intelligence information to justify invading Iraq.