Primary elections give voters a front row seat for the sort of in-fighting that reveals a lot about the two major political parties and why they sometimes lose.

It's not been that bad (so far) for Democrats because they hold the edge statewide numerically. They can afford to flirt with their left wing before settling on a slightly more broadly palatable candidate. Believe it or not, Barbara Roberts, John Kitzhaber and Ted Kulongoski are not the most liberal candidates the Democratic Party could put forth.

But finding a centrist or moderate is something Oregon Republicans haven't managed to do since the days of Vic Atiyeh. Denny Smith? Bill Sizemore? Kevin Mannix? Folks, there's voting your principles, and then there's voting pragmatically. Oregon Republicans need to vote for a candidate who could win and govern. Republicans need to find the second coming of Dave Frohnmayer and avert their eyes from any Al Mobleys who should happen to crop up.

Bottom line: The 2006 primary should be a no-brainer for Democrats and Republicans alike. It won't be, but it should be.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski has the power of incumbency and the benefit of an improving economy under his watch. That he's presently unpopular with labor unions and Multnomah County Democrats speaks to where his viewpoints fall in the Democratic spectrum. And he's been willing to take tough stands on issues Democrats used to shy away from, like state employee pay and benefits.

Vulnerable as he's been purported to be, Democrats have only to ask voters: are you better off today than you were four years ago? Many will say yes; many who would say no are incapable of voting Republican. All told, the economy alone could carry the election in November.

But maybe not if the GOP rouses itself from its funk of failing candidates and puts forth a potential winner. Mannix had his hour in the sun, and Kulongoski won. Replaying the 2002 election and hoping for some voter defection certainly has its allure, but Oregon Republicans have another viable candidate: Ron Saxton.

He's a lawyer. He's got a philanthropic bent. He's served on the Portland School Board, one of the state's largest government entities.

And he'd be a formidable foe for Kulongoski, able to go toe-to-toe on the issues and duck the andquot;career politicanandquot; label both Kulongoski and Mannix share.