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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Oregon Legislature. This is a venue for political and policy coverage of the state government in Salem and its impact on the people of Oregon.

Oregon Gubernatorial Candidates Tangle In First Debate

Michael Clapp

Democrat John Kitzhaber and Republican Dennis Richardson traded barbs Friday during the first debate of the 2014 Oregon governor's race. The 75 minute face-off was held during a meeting of the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association in Salem.

Richardson repeatedly questioned Kitzhaber’s leadership skills, and portrayed him as being disengaged from his job as the state's chief executive.

"While Oregon and our economy lagged and while we were in legislative session, he flies across the world to study Gross National Happiness in Bhutan? I mean, you can't make this stuff up," said the challenger.

Richardson also criticized Kitzhaber's oversight of the state’s Obamacare online portal, Cover Oregon. The state spent more than $200 million to develop a website that never worked the way it was supposed to.

"I don't accept the premise that all those dollars were wasted," countered Kitzhaber, who noted that Oregon did enroll more than 300,000 people for health insurance through other methods.

Kitzhaber is seeking what would be an unprecedented fourth term as Oregon governor. He was elected twice in the 90's. Oregon governors cannot serve more than two consecutive terms. But after stepping away from politics for eight years, Kitzhaber won back the governor's office in 2010. During Friday's debate, the Democrat cited job growth and reforms to the state's education and health care systems as reasons why voters should give him another four years in office.

But health care and education also provide material for political attacks against Kitzhaber. Republican Richardson said the incumbent's performance on those topics and questionable appointments demonstrate a lack of leadership. Richardson is a long-time state representative from the Medford area who is known around the capitol for his conservative views on fiscal and social issues.

Despite Kitzhaber's political vulnerabilities, the Democrat enjoys a huge fundraising lead over Richardson. No Republican has been elected governor in Oregon since Vic Atiyeh won a second term in 1982.

Both Kitzhaber and Richardson faced little organized opposition in this May's primary on their way to securing their respective party nominations.