For Republican candidates, appearing at a gathering of the land-use group 1000 Friends of Oregon is something like being Jimmy Swaggart at an atheists' convention. Chances are the congregation probably won't agree with you on much--and certainly won't fill your collection plate.

Last Saturday, however, GOP gubernatorial hopefuls Jack Roberts and Kevin Mannix joined Democrats Jim Hill, Beverly Stein and Ted Kulongoski in the latest candidate cattle call. Absent was former Portland school board head Ron Saxton, a Republican, who had a schedule conflict.

Given that 1000 Friends tend to be donkey-petters, predictions were that one of the Dems would emerge as a crowd favorite.

Surprisingly, however, it was a political pachyderm who elicited the most head-nodding and "uh-huh" murmuring during the one-hour. In spite of his disagreement with the Friends on the sanctity of the urban growth boundary and the evils of asphalt, Roberts won the crowd over with his wit and his quick answers on a wide range of issues.

In courting his new Friends, Roberts also tried to distance himself from his absent partisan rival. He made much of the fact that he was alone among the Republican candidates in actively opposing Ballot Measure 7, which, if upheld by the courts, could gut statewide land-use planning and set back the work of 1000 Friends. "Some prominent Republicans didn't like that," said Roberts, referring to Eugene lumber baron Aaron Jones, "and took their money to Ron Saxton--which may explain why he is not here today."

Contacted later, Saxton let loose.

"That's ridiculous," says Saxton. "I am a supporter of the state's land-use policy. My wife was on the Land Conservation and Development Commission for eight years. The idea that Jack is the friend of the system and I'm not is just laughable. It's the latest in a series of incredibly cheap shots."

Saxton says he did not vote for Measure 7 but that since the voters have passed it, the job of the governor is to implement it in a reasonable way that won't bankrupt state or local governments.

As for the connection between that position and the $10,000 worth of support from Jones so far, Saxton says that he has never spoken to Jones about it, and he was unwilling to discuss any conversations he had with Jones' assistant, Dale Riddle.

Saxton's absence let Roberts seize the role of Republican moderate in speaking before a group that was founded by another one, former Gov. Tom McCall. Roberts said it was no accident that McCall was one of just two Republicans to hold the state's highest office in the past quarter-century, but, he says, he has learned from the mistakes of the past three GOP candidates.

"Dave Frohnmayer taught us you can't win if you don't have the conservatives of the party with you," Roberts says. "Denny Smith taught us you can't win with only the conservatives with you. Bill Sizemore taught us you can't win if you don't have anybody with you."