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Women making their mark in many 1984 elections. In Oregon, used to women officeholders, gender may even help a proven woman hopeful

The neck-and-neck race for governor of Oregon is a study in contrasts -- much like the state itself. The Democratic candidate is a former mayor of the flourishing city of Portland. The Republican candidate has roots in the rural part of the state, which has not fully recovered from the recession of the early '80s.

The Democratic candidate has national credentials, having served as secretary of transportation under President Carter. The Republican candidate is well grounded at home, serving in state government as a legislator and former secretary of state.

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And, not least of all, the Democratic candidate is a man, while the Republican candidate is a woman.

But the contest between Neil Goldschmidt and Norma Paulus cannot be accurately pegged as a battle between the sexes. Asked early in her campaign if gender would become an issue, Mrs. Paulus quipped: ``Whose? His or mine?''

Paulus is one of nine women running for governorships this year, but she has the extra advantage of doing so in a state that is accustomed to seeing women in high office. Currently, the state's speaker of the House, its commissioner of labor and industry, and its secretary of state are women.

Indeed, a new survey shows that, of all the states, Oregon ranks first in terms of women's equality with men. The survey, conducted by two Eastern sociologists, measured women's standings in 29 categories, including the proportion of women in professional and managerial posts, their presence in political and judicial offices, and the passage of state laws protecting women's rights.

Paulus's gender is not likely to do much damage to her campaign, experts agree. The real question is whether it will draw any votes, particularly among women voters.

Nationally, the lesson of Geraldine Ferraro's vice-presidential candidacy in 1984 was that women voters will not line up behind a candidate simply because she is a woman. It also showed that, while more women vote Democratic than Republican, the Democrats by no means own the women's vote.

``The women's vote is very issue-oriented,'' says Ethel Klein, associate professor of political science at Columbia University and author of the book ``Gender Politics.'' ``Any candidate who says vote for me because I'm a woman is seen as selfish.''

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But if a woman has demonstrated her capacity to be a leader, then both men and women are more likely to vote for her, Professor Klein says. Public perceptions of women candidates as compassionate, honest, and caring come into play if doubts about a woman's qualifications can be erased.

``There's something to be said, too, about women feeling at some level that women candidates care about community and care about children,'' Klein says. Given Paulus's experience and credibility, her gender may be working for her.

Last month, in fact, Paulus was leading Mr. Goldschmidt by eight points in a public-opinion poll, and the margin of her lead was 11 points among women voters. In a new poll released over the weekend, however, Goldschmidt had rebounded to take a slight lead. The women's vote appeared to be evenly split.

Both candidates have solid records on women's issues, including support for the Equal Rights Amendment, pay equity, and child care. While Paulus won the endorsement of the Oregon Women's Political Caucus, Goldschmidt got the nod from the Oregon chapter of the National Organization for Women.

Many political observers here say the governor's race is a no-lose situation for Oregon. ``There's a strong comfort level in the public's attitude about either candidate,'' says Ron Schmidt, who served in the administration of former Republican Gov. Tom McCall. Mr. Schmidt says that despite the contrasts in the candidates' backgrounds, ``there are not a lot of differences'' in their views, which he describes as ``progressively moderate.''

Heading the list of concerns here are the state economy, jobs, and tax-cut and tax-increase initiatives. But the underlying issue is the current administration of two-term Republican Gov. Victor G. Atiyeh, ``which hasn't been a very stimulating governorship,'' Schmidt says. As a result, both candidates are trying to portray themselves as vigorous, decisive, and innovative leaders. They routinely meet head-on in debates and joint appearances across the state.

Coincidentally, the last governor's race was won on the women's vote, Klein says. In her surveys of Democratic precincts in Oregon, women voted heavily Democratic in all races except one -- Governor Atiyeh's.

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