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Tight Senate Race Could Uproot Oregon Political Giant : Campaign: Challenger Harry Lonsdale has been able to use timely issues and voter discontent to undercut Sen. Mark Hatfield.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In this unsettled political year with clouds of voter rebellion thickening overhead, we visit Oregon, where gasps and whispers carry word that a giant of Northwestern politics may be in giant trouble.

Sen. Mark O. Hatfield, who has never lost an election for public office, is on the run, chased by crafty upstart eco-businessman Harry Lonsdale, who has never won an election or, for that matter, even stood for one.

It is an election that could rock the U.S. Senate and quite likely mark a crossroads in the rough-hewn environmental politics of the Northwest.

Just a few months ago, hardly anyone gave the race a second thought. Few individuals are as towering in the political hierarchy of their states as Hatfield is in Oregon. A progressive, independent-minded Republican, known as a champion of peace and disarmament, he has held one office or another here for 39 years.

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Twice he was elected governor. A marble bust of him is displayed today in the state Capitol. He has been in the Senate 24 years, is second in Republican seniority and is the ranking GOP member of the Appropriations Committee.

His style, even in the face of random campaign scares in the past, has been to come home and, as they say, “stand for reelection.” As little fuss and fireworks as possible, please, and of course never mention your opponent.

But not now.

In the final weeks of the campaign, opinion polls and survival instinct told Hatfield that his once commanding position was slipping away. One poll found Hatfield’s lead dropping from 36% to 6% with a month left before the election, and some political experts think the race has grown much tighter since.

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His voice shaking and his fist hammering the lectern at a recent Portland news conference, the 68-year-old Hatfield said: “I’m prepared to fight.” Of the campaign against him, he said: “Political pollution at its foulest.”

Lonsdale is a 58-year-old Ph.D. chemist who built a research business in Bend, in the central part of the state, devising nonpoisonous pesticides and technologies for cleaning up toxic wastes.

Politics came late but seemingly easily to Lonsdale, who has been both skillful and lucky at driving wedges between Oregon and its senior senator.

First, was timber. Lonsdale began his campaign objecting to the continued felling of what remains of unprotected old-growth trees in the state. He branded Hatfield a compromiser on the issue and accused the senator of favoring timber barons over the environment.

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Luck came along and dropped the spotted owl controversy into the campaign, adding an air of crisis.

Then, Lonsdale began shifting his emphasis to abortion. He favors abortion rights; Hatfield has supported a constitutional amendment to ban all abortions.

As fate would have it, two citizen initiatives to restrict abortions made their way to the November ballot here, making the issue more than abstract.

All the while, Lonsdale has pursued a well-executed strategy of trying to paint Hatfield not as a senior senator bringing home the bacon for Oregon but a professional Washingtonian who has become a willing servant of privileged interests, whether the savings and loans or toxic polluters.

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Underlying the campaign is a belief that voters in Oregon, like other states, have had a bellyful of entrenched incumbents, even once popular ones, and are restless to shake things up. In the argot of campaign politics, it’s sometimes known as the gold-watch strategy when deployed against someone of high standing.

“Like many of you, I’ve voted for Mark Hatfield in the past,” Lonsdale says in his television commercials. But the announcer adds: “Twenty-four years back in Washington really has changed Mark Hatfield.”

The Oregonian newspaper in Portland says that while other states have become accustomed to campaigns of this type, driven by polls and focus groups and tested strategies plotted by out-of-state professional consultants, Oregon has seen nothing like it in at least a decade.


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