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Oregon's Dudley unconventional candidate in unconventional year

By Peter Hamby, CNN Political Producer
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'Outsider' vs. 'insider' in Oregon race
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • GOP candidate and ex-NBA player Chris Dudley is in a close race to be Oregon's governor
  • Oregon has elected Democratic executives in every election since 1986
  • Dudley says he's a moderate and is focusing on cutting taxes and creating jobs
  • Democrat John Kitzhaber says Dudley's money advantage is main reason race competitive

Portland, Oregon (CNN) -- If 2010 truly is the year of the political outsider, then Chris Dudley should be sworn in as the next governor of Oregon in January.

Dudley's unconventional résumé is striking, even in a campaign season defined by novice politicians upending establishment figures.

Dudley isn't just a 6-foot-11 former NBA journeyman with size 16 shoes whose most notable YouTube moment is a clip of Shaquille O'Neal shoving him to the ground as center for the New York Knicks.

He also happens to be a Republican within striking distance of winning the governor's race in Oregon, a state that's elected Democratic executives in every election since 1986.

Keen to Oregon's left-leaning proclivities -- Barack Obama thumped John McCain here in 2008 by 16 percentage points -- Dudley has positioned himself as a moderate with a relentless focus on cutting taxes and creating private-sector jobs.

In an interview this week with CNN, Dudley stuck to his message, returning to the words jobs or employment nearly 30 times.

"I'm running on the Republican side, but I'm running first and foremost as an Oregonian," Dudley said Monday after touring the Danner boot manufacturing facility in Portland. "I wouldn't consider myself very partisan, probably more pragmatic in many ways."

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That pragmatism was tested during his walk-through of the factory, which, he was informed, employs union labor. Several organized labor groups -- the Oregon Education Association, Service Employees International Union and American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees -- are backing his opponent, former two-term Gov. John Kitzhaber, with television ads and campaign contributions.

A former treasurer of the NBA Players Association, Dudley called himself "absolutely pro-union" after the tour and said there needs to be "a healthy tension" between business and labor -- remarks that in any other state would send a collective shudder through the GOP ranks.

But this is Oregon. Dudley told CNN he supports abortion rights as well as civil unions, and he freely discussed social ills such as poverty and homelessness.

The strategy, so far, appears to be working. Despite a decided lack of reliable polling in the race, insiders agree that while Kitzhaber may hold a tiny lead, the race is essentially a tossup.

Dudley has surrounded himself with a clutch of longtime political operatives with a record of success electing Republicans in blue states.

His campaign manager, Josh Ginsberg, aided Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's 2006 campaign in California. Dudley's spokeswoman, Brittany Brammel, worked on Chris Christie's 2009 campaign for governor in New Jersey.

Two senior figures from McCain's unsuccessful presidential campaign are helping steer the ship: Former McCain campaign manager Steve Schmidt is Dudley's top consultant, while Schmidt's partner Greg Strimple is the campaign's pollster.

Kitzhaber supporters roll their eyes at Dudley's admittedly thin political record and say he's not as moderate as he'd like some voters to think.

Aides to Kitzhaber note that Dudley, in a Republican primary debate this year, said he's open to a ban on late-term abortions and a parental notification law.

And in June, Dudley told a radio host that he'd be open to oil drilling off the Oregon coast.

Like most campaigns this fall though, the race is being fought over which candidate has the best plan for job creation in a state with a 10.6 percent unemployment rate, a percentage point higher than the national average.

The state's largest newspaper, The Oregonian, endorsed Kitzhaber on Sunday, arguing that Dudley has "no public service record" and cannot "explain fully how he would address Oregon's difficult problems."

The endorsement dovetailed nicely with Kitzhaber's pitch: that as a former governor, state legislator and health care policy expert, he has the experience needed to repair a $3.2 billion shortfall in the upcoming two-year budget.

"Chris has no relevant experience to address the budget issue," Kitzhaber told CNN. "He has never created a private-sector job; he has never managed a large organization. He has never balanced a budget."

The mustachioed former governor -- who has a fondess for cowboy boots, jeans and large belt buckles -- attacked Dudley's plan to reduce the capital-gains tax as irresponsible unless he can develop a plan to pay for the cuts.

"You don't get private-sector job creation simply by whacking almost a billion out of the budget," Kitzhaber said. "That is the George W. Bush playbook. I mean, hello, that didn't work, and it's not going to work this time."

Dudley strikes back with an argument smartly attuned to the current political climate, casting his rival as a career insider who deserves much of the blame for the state's dismal economic situation.

"This is a situation where we are living in [the] future that he created," he said of Kitzhaber, who was governor from 1995 to 2003. "When it comes to experience, I would say, 'Why would you hire the arsonist who created the fire?' "

Dudley has the benefit of running in a terrible atmosphere for Democrats, but he has another advantage in a state where campaign messages are largely driven through television ads: cash.

The Republican Governors Association is so confident in Dudley's chances that it has directed $2.3 million to his campaign account so far this year, including a $1.5 million transfer on October 1.

Dudley has collected $7.4 million for his campaign this year and has $2.4 million left in the bank, according to financial reports filed at the end of last week. That compares with $4.1 million raised by Kitzhaber, who has $875,000 left on hand.

In an interview at a diner near his campaign headquarters Tuesday, Kitzhaber pointed to Dudley's money advantage as the prime reason the race is still competitive.

"It's close because with money you can make a lightweight a heavyweight in politics in America in 2010," he said.

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