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Sorenson runs uncustomary race in unconventional year.

Byline: David Steves The Register-Guard

Peter Sorenson's race for governor isn't just a campaign to unseat a well-funded incumbent.

It's also a challenge to the long-shot candidate's own conventional wisdom, circa 1979.

That was the year Sorenson wrote a graduate school thesis on the behavior of voters in Oregon, concluding that two factors determine an election's outcome.

"Without question, the No. 1 factor is incumbency. Whoever is in is likely to stay in," Sorenson recalled. "No. 2 is money. Whoever has the most money usually wins."

Now, 27 years later, Sorenson - a Lane County commissioner, with a campaign account balance of $6,993 - is taking on a sitting governor, Ted Kulongoski, who had $811,256 in the bank as of the beginning of April.

"So by that analysis, why are we even having this election?" Sorenson asked, before quickly adding, "But it's not a conventional year."

Sorenson hopes to prove his thesis paper wrong by appealing to the most progressive wing of the Democratic Party through a below-the-radar campaign. Instead of relying on big-money ad campaigns and big-name endorsements, Sorenson has been testing the approach pioneered by Howard Dean's Internet-based campaign in 2004. Sorenson is similarly trying to deploy the Web as a tool for raising a large number of small donations and for organizing supporters through meet-ups and house parties.

With one month to go before the May 16 turn-in deadline for primary ballots, Sorenson is at a point where he needs his year-plus effort to begin paying off.

Since January 2005, he's been crisscrossing the state, meeting with small groups of potential supporters. He's gathered e-mail addresses and encouraged supporters to aid him in expanding the number of contacts in his database by recruiting others to the cause.

The theory was that in the final weeks of the campaign, Sorenson could count on this multiplying cadre of supporters to canvass neighborhoods, host meet-ups and donate money to the Sorenson Web site.

But so far, most of Sorenson's monetary support has come from the friendly confines of Lane County, where Sorenson has become well known through the years as a political staffer to former U.S. Rep. Jim Weaver, a state senator and, since 1997, a county commissioner.

Pat Riggs-Henson of Springfield said she's considered Sorenson a friend since the late 1980s, when both became directors on the Lane Community College board. She said Sorenson has cultivated a reputation locally for a strong work ethic, a grasp of public-policy details, passion for the environment and compassion for people.

Locally, she said, "He's loved. You talk to people, and Peter is loved."

Riggs-Henson said Sorenson's ambitions are what seem to have drawn him to the governor's race.

"Peter has aspirations to serve at a higher level and has had those aspirations for years. And the only way that he can become known is to do what he's doing now," said Riggs-Henson, a leader in local labor and Democratic Party circles.

The task of building a statewide base has been Sorenson's biggest challenge. The current campaign has given him opportunities. A pair of debates that included Kulongoski brought Sorenson free media coverage statewide.

And he's had the right political climate. He cited the discontent among voters for their incumbent governor, as evidenced by polls showing Kulongoski's approval rating around 33 percent. And he said that Republican politicians are hampered by growing voter skepticism, giving a progressive Democrat such as himself a good shot at winning the general election.

But Sorenson hasn't had the field of disaffected Democrats all to himself. In February, better known rival Jim Hill, a former state treasurer who ran for governor in 2002, entered the Democratic primary race.

Jim Moore, a political analyst and professor at Pacific University, said that while Sorenson's approach may follow the Dean campaign playbook, the results have not. For one thing, he hasn't brought in the volume of online donations needed to reach out to less-committed voters through conventional advertising. As of March 30, Sorenson had pulled in $48,366. By contrast, Kulongoski had garnered nearly $850,000; GOP candidate Ron Saxton had pulled in $1.2 million; and Republican Kevin Mannix had reaped nearly $880,000.

And despite the opportunities and conditions that would seem to favor an outsider candidate such as Sorenson, his campaign hasn't clicked with voters in the Democratic primary, Moore said.

"He wasted his opportunities by not differentiating himself from Kulongoski on issues enough," Moore said, referring to the recent debates. "There wasn't enough there. ... Sorenson had nothing that was going to grab the headlines."

Sorenson has said for months that he expects the media and political observers to overlook the grass-roots power of his campaign strategy; they will see only the absence of money in his campaign finance reports and the dearth of ads on TV as evidence that he's not making a mark.

So far, according to campaign manager Shane Kavanaugh, Sorenson has about 63,000 contacts in his Web-based database - the result of gathering information from those who showed up at his speaking engagements and who helped attract other potential supporters to campaign's attention.

Asked if his attempt to replicate the Howard Dean model in Oregon is bound for success, Sorenson offers a candid response.

"To be more objective about it, we don't know if it's going to work as well as I think it's going to work," he said. "That's what the election is all about."

Sorenson has found ways to declare his campaign a success even he falls short of winning the nomination. He's used his platform to draw attention to Oregon's unfinished battle against hunger. He's criticized the Bush administration's policies, especially its war in Iraq and the damage that conflict has inflicted on the Oregon National Guard. He's also highlighted how changes in tax law approved by successive Oregon lawmakers and governors have shifted the tax burden away from corporations and onto households.

"You do a campaign for multiple reasons, one of which is to raise awareness about the issues," Sorenson said.
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Title Annotation:Politics
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Apr 20, 2006
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