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Ted Kulongoski launched his fall advertising campaign in the governor's race Tuesday with a withering attack on Republican Kevin Mannix's opposition to abortion.
The front-runner dismissed accusations that he is trying to deflect attention from Oregon's economic crisis.
Front-runners usually open their ad campaigns with a softer approach.
But Kulongoski has been roughed up by an ad run by an independent group attacking his support for a tax increase, and his strategists think Mannix is vulnerable on abortion given Oregon's tradition of preserving abortion rights.
Mannix spokesman Mike Beard said that Kulongoski is trying to shift the subject from more important issues.
"Try telling the people with the pink slips right now that Ted Kulongoski's No. 1 concern is abortion," said Beard.
Kulongoski spokeswoman Kristen Grainger made no apologies for focusing on abortion.
"Kevin Mannix sees it as a red herring," she said. "We see it as a Great White that's going to bite him. . . . When he calls it a red herring, he's insulting the intelligence of the pro-choice voters of this state."
Grainger said most of the TV time bought by the campaign would be devoted to the abortion ad, which claims Mannix is "too extreme" on the issue.
Portland pollster Tim Hibbitts said Kulongoski may have been quick to go on the attack because voters are increasingly looking for change and may be more likely to tie Kulongoski to Democrat Gov. John Kitzhaber and the budget stalemate in the Legislature.
He said people aren't happy with the way things are going.
Kulongoski was on the receiving end of early attack ad when he first ran for governor 20 years ago. The state was in an even deeper recession then, and Kulongoski was running close to then-Gov. Vic Atiyeh in polls in the summer.
In early September, Atiyeh launched radio ads saying that "this is no time for Mr. Kulongoski's dangerous approach" on the economy, and Atiyeh won in a landslide.
Mannix also raised abortion as an issue during the primary when he sent out mailings pointing out that he was the only one of the Republican candidates who was "pro-life."
Mannix began his general-election advertising last week with an ad focused on the economy and leadership.
However, a separate group, Citizens for a Sound Economy, ran a TV commercial statewide criticizing Kulongoski for saying in the spring that the Legislature should enact a temporary income-tax increase to help fill the state's budget shortfall.
Although the group says it is operating separately of Mannix, Grainger said she thinks the Citizens' ad is funded by people supporting him.
"I disagree that we're the first" to use attack ads, she said. "I think Mannix and his supporters went negative two weeks ago."
Russell Walker, who heads the Oregon chapter of Citizens for a Sound Economy, said the group spent more than $116,000 airing the ad for a week and that the ad was funded by local donors he did not name. But he said they were "not necessarily" Mannix supporters.