Kitzhaber Tries to Make Abortion an Issue

Kitzhaber Tries to Make Abortion an Issue

By Scott Conroy - November 1, 2010

PORTLAND, Ore. - On the final weekend before Election Day, Oregon Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Kitzhaber briefly addressed a group of volunteers before they spread out around the Portland area to canvass door to door. Though Kitzhaber, who previously served as governor from 1995 to 2003, highlighted jobs and the economy as the fundamental issues in the race, he opened and closed his remarks by addressing a topic that has not come up nearly as often in this election cycle: abortion.

"He wants to restrict a woman's right to choice," Kitzhaber said of his Republican opponent, Chris Dudley.

Asked why he was talking about abortion near the end of a campaign that has been dominated by pocketbook issues, Kitzhaber told RealClearPolitics, "I do think this is a state that has always protected a whole range of reproductive services, so I do think that's an important issue."

Dudley, a 6'11" former NBA center who played five of his 16 seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers, describes himself as pro-choice. "I've said I'm open to a ban on late-term abortion and open to parental notification," he told RealClearPolitics in explaining the basis for his opponent's attacks.

Kitzhaber's effort to pin Dudley down on abortion stands out in an election cycle in which social issues have largely been downplayed.But in a race that both campaigns agree is a dead heat heading into Election Day, Kitzhaber has attempted to use Dudley's more nuanced position on abortion to energize pro-choice Democrats and socially progressive independents who compose the majority of Oregon's electorate.

The state hasn't elected a Republican governor since Vic Atiyeh won a second term in 1982.

Kitzhaber's campaign web site features a nearly two-minute long ad titled, "John Kitzhaber is the only pro-choice candidate for Governor," which highlights interviews with several abortion rights advocates in the state.

"In order to keep Oregon pro-choice, we have to have a pro-choice governor," a woman says in the ad as a Planned Parenthood sign is seen in the background. "So it's important to elect people who are pro-choice. Dudley is not pro-choice. In fact, he's pretty anti-choice, irregardless of whether he says it or not."

Dudley dismissed Kitzhaber's decision to raise the abortion issue as a last-minute tactic by a campaign that has struggled to resonate with voters on the more pressing concerns of the day.

"I think it tells you something when he wants to talk about everything but jobs, but the economy, but the issues that are facing Oregonians today-that he wants to go there-especially on a candidate, I'm pro-choice," Dudley said. "I think Oregonians as a whole are kind of put off by that. It's like wait a second, we've got 10.6 unemployment here and as high as 15 to 18 percent in certain counties, and he doesn't want to talk about the economy? He wants to talk about that he's more pro-choice than his opponent? I don't think it connects."

While the pro-choice groups Planned Parenthood and NARAL have endorsed Kitzhaber, the state's most prominent pro-life group, Oregon Right To Life, has stayed out of the race.

Dudley's espoused pro-choice stance is merely one facet of how he has sought to define himself as a GOP candidate who is well within the mainstream of the Oregon electorate.

In a year when most Republicans cannot seem to talk enough about all the ways in which they intend to fight the national Democratic agenda, Dudley was reluctant to criticize President Obama in the RealClearPolitics interview, and his campaign last week released a new TV ad touting his "moderate, bipartisan approach."

"I'm a believer in a big tent, so I'm a believer that you have your core principles, but you're going to have different variations of things across the country," Dudley said. "I played a very physical sport, and I was known as being pretty tough, but I think there's a way of doing things where you've got to be careful with the rhetoric. At the end of the day, I'd say the one thing that's come through loud and clear, especially here in Oregon traveling the campaign trail: people are upset at the other side of the aisle, but they're also upset at their own."

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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