Ameri(can) Dream May Win Out

Posted May 10, 2004 at 4:45pm

In the hard-fought race between Goli Ameri and Tim Phillips for the GOP nod to take on three-term Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.) in November, personal history may prove to be the trump card.

Most political observers still see the race as too close too call with a week to go before the May 18 primary. But Ameri appears to be gaining momentum.

The Iranian-born Ameri’s aggressive use of her personal story, as well as her leading role in the effort to defeat Measure 30, a $1 billion tax increase proposal that Beaver State voters overwhelmingly rejected in February, appears to be paying dividends.

“The edge goes to Ameri,” said one Oregon political consultant who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “She’s made her ethnic heritage the centerpiece of her campaign — that and her opposition to Measure 30.”

In response, Phillips, 37, has also touted his ethnic roots — his mother was born in New Delhi — though to a lesser degree.

“He looks like a white guy,” said independent Oregon pollster Tim Hibbits.

Many Republicans believe that Wu can be defeated by a well-funded challenger. So the presence of two wealthy business executives in the race has been a mixed blessing for the GOP.

The expensive and at times bitter race for the Republican nomination in a district that runs from Portland to the Pacific Ocean has been eclipsed in recent days by the revelation that former Oregon Gov. Neil Goldschmidt (D) carried on a sexual relationship with a teenage girl when he was mayor of Portland in the 1970s.

“We had a [political] reporter telling us … that we are not covering anything except the Goldschmidt story for the next two weeks,” said Phillips pollster Bob Moore.

With that late-breaking twist, Phillips and Ameri, who are both wealthy business executives, have been spending heavily to boost their candidacies.

The 47-year-old Ameri, who left her homeland as a college freshman and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Stanford University before building a successful telecom consulting business, has proven herself to be a fundraising powerhouse, raking in more than $900,000 so far.

Ameri had just more than $90,000 on hand for the final days of the primary, said campaign manager Hap Hinman. Phillips, on the other hand, had $115, 260 on hand — 20 percent to 25 percent of which can be used for the primary, Cannon estimated.

Hinman said the campaign conducted a poll last week that showed Ameri with “a solid lead,” though he would provide no details.

Phillips’ campaign manager, Renee Cannon, said Phillips had also been in the field in early May, but declined to comment on any polling results, saying it was “too close” to the election to give “too much information away.”

“We’re really confident that this is going to be a really tight race,” she said.

Cannon also said the campaign planned to do “some real fun stuff” in the final two days of the race to generate interest, though she declined to elaborate beyond saying that volunteers might be out on overpasses with signs.

In Oregon, where all votes are cast by mail, the primary election has been under way since the first ballots went out at the end of April. By today, an estimated 20 percent of the 1st district’s Republican electorate may have already cast its ballots.

Much of the battle for the hearts and minds of Republican voters — as early as a month ago, a poll released by the Ameri campaign showed the undecideds clocking in at a whopping 79 percent — is being waged through aggressive ad campaigns, with both Ameri and Phillips running spots on both local broadcast stations and Fox News.

Phillips is currently airing a spot that blasts wasteful spending — a theme of his campaign — and emphasizes his support for making President Bush’s tax cuts permanent.

The Ameri campaign is alternating two TV ads — an “American Dream” spot, which highlights her immigrant success story, and another that focuses on taxes and spending — as part of a pre-paid $100,000 ad buy this week.

“We’ve spent twice the amount of money over the last three to four weeks on TV than our opponent,” Hinman said.

Additionally, 1st district voters last week were bombarded with an audio-dial call in which the executive director of the Oregon chapter of Citizens for a Sound Economy touted Ameri’s anti-tax credentials and reminded voters that former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) has endorsed her.

Ameri has also received the endorsement of the influential Oregon Taxpayers’ Association, as well as The Oregonian, the state’s largest newspaper.

Some state Republican officials are privately conceding that Ameri may be the strongest potential candidate against the Taiwanese-born Wu, a moderate Democrat who is only the third Chinese American to serve in Congress.

Hinman himself isn’t above insinuating that some national Republicans may also favor Ameri over Phillips, given her “compelling” story.

“I have had conversations where individuals who nationally play a role in the Republican Party have communicated that to me,” he said.

National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Carl Forti said the committee had no preference in the primary and would take a “wait and see” approach when it came to ranking the general election race.

“The strongest candidate will emerge,” he predicted.

In a district that is closely split between Republicans and Democrats, Wu has held the seat easily since his inaugural 1998 win by just 3 points over Molly Bordonaro, who is now President Bush’s Northwest regional campaign chairwoman.

This year, however, even Wu’s campaign manager Cameron Johnson conceded “it’s going to be a very, very competitive race.”

“If you look at 1998 that’s potentially an analogous situation,” he said. “When Republican challengers have been able to raise a large amount of money they have traditionally done very well.”

Still Wu is no slouch when it comes to the money chase, either. Wu, who is uncontested in the primary, posted roughly $1.3 million on hand through March 31.

A third Republican candidate, attorney and software executive Jason Meshell, remains an unknown factor in the race. Meshell, who has lagged far behind the two frontrunners in fundraising, had just $6,300 on hand through April 28 and has run no TV ads.

This self-described “Gladiator of the People” has instead chosen to focus on a “traditional grassroots campaign,” relying on “road rallies” in his green Ford pickup truck to help gin up interest for his long-shot campaign, said communications director Jerry Brooks.

But his conservative credentials — he is the only candidate in the GOP field who opposes abortion rights — have earned him the much sought-after endorsement of Oregon Right to Life.

Some observers, such as independent pollster Hibbits, said that with two candidates who nominally support abortion rights caught in a tight race, it was “unlikely but possible” that they’d split the vote, resulting in an upset Meshell victory.

“Meshell’s more conservative,” said Hibbits. “There’s a market for that here in the Republican primary.”

And 1st district Republican Party Chairman Jeff Smith said that Meshell’s base overlaps with Ameri’s, which holds the potential for Meshell to siphon off enough of Ameri’s vote to give the edge to Phillips.

“I hate to call him a spoiler,” said Smith. But “the final result could be to spoil it for Goli in that sense.”

Early in the race, the two frontrunners exchanged angry e-mails after Phillips accused Ameri of flip-flopping on immigration issues, and each demanded an apology from the other. Since then the race has quieted down, though Phillips has blasted Ameri for accepting the majority of her money in out-of-state contributions, and Ameri has publicized news reports recounting the fines imposed by regulatory agencies on Phillips’ brokerage firm.

“They actually have treated each other more nicely as of late, and I appreciate that,” said state GOP Chairman Kevin Mannix.

But with the race down to the wire, it’s anybody’s guess if the generally temperate tone will continue.

Cannon said Phillips planned to “stay positive,” but noted, “You have to pay attention to what everyone is doing.”

Likewise, the Ameri campaign sounded a note of warning.

“It’s our intention to continue with a positive message,” said Hinman. “Clearly, if we are attacked we are prepared and well positioned to respond.”