Oregon's two leading candidates for governor faced each other on a debate stage for the first time Friday. Republican challenger Dennis Richardson repeatedly questioned incumbent Democrat John Kitzhaber's commitment to the job during a 75-minute faceoff in Salem.
When John Kitzhaber took office in January 2011, the state's economy was in the midst of a prolonged slump. And in order to advance his agenda to get the state back on track, he faced the added challenge of the Oregon House being evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans.
In front of an audience of newspaper publishers, Kitzhaber said it was his leadership that helped get through what could have been political gridlock.
"What we've done together over the past four years is to create that political operational center that was once a hallmark of our state, one that allows us to act together as a community and move forward for the benefit of all of us," the governor said.
Kitzhaber's chief rival is Republican Dennis Richardson. The southern Oregon state representative said Kitzhaber is well past the "use-by" date. And he said the governor just doesn't seem to be interested in the job anymore.
"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?" Richardson said. "I mean, you can't make this stuff up."
Kitzhaber did visit the small Asian nation of Bhutan during the legislative session last year. But he said he's also made an effort to meet with business leaders throughout Oregon to get their ideas for turning the economy around.
The two candidates did agree on some issues. They're both against legalizing recreational marijuana and they both support a change to primary election procedures. A ballot measure to advance the top two primary winners regardless of party will go before Oregon voters this fall.
Friday's invitation-only debate excluded candidates from the Libertarian Party and the Constitution Party who will also appear on the November ballot. Kitzhaber has a huge fundraising lead over all of his opponents.
If he wins re-election this fall, he'll serve an unprecedented fourth term as Oregon Governor.