Ask Portland pollster Lisa Grove to describe her job and she'll tell you it's like being "the head chess player" in a campaign.

Extend her simile and it's as if Grove has been playing speed chess for a bulging client list heading into the May 16 primary: Gov. Ted Kulongoski, City Commissioners Erik Sten and Dan Saltzman, as well as Multnomah County commissioner candidate Jeff Cogen.

Grove, the founder of the Grove Insight consulting firm, has also been a lead strategist over the past two decades for nonprofits, corporations, labor unions and politicians ranging from Al Gore when he first ran for president in 1988 to former Colombian President César Gaviria.

Grove, who turns 44 on March 17, is one of the few female practitioners in the male-dominated profession of conducting political polls. Here's what Grove had to say when we asked her a few of our own questions:

WW: What's going wrong for Democratic candidates these days?

Lisa Grove: I don't buy into the "Republican Lite" idea. Democrats win when they look, smell, feel and talk like Democrats. We're righteous about our issues. Republicans are so much better at talking about things in values-laden terms. Democrats lose if we don't help people understand the motivations behind a policy proposal. We lose voters with wonky language. If we talk about our issues, we can win. For us, it's about social justice, opportunity and fairness. As Democrats, it's what gets us up in the mornings. But we forget to talk about the why. We try to outsmart instead of out-heart.

Isn't it also possible that voters have become more conservative and just like what they hear from Republicans?

I don't think so. What the public is saying is that you're both engaged in too much finger-pointing. You're offering nothing more than vague platitudes and hollow proposals. I think they just want to know, "Why can't I believe you?" Most voters are inclined to believe that what matters to politicians is the campaign contributions, and this is where Democrats have a huge advantage.

You've said health care's importance as a topic in 2006 will be good for Democrats. But 600,000 out of 3.6 million Oregonians lack coverage, and the Oregon Health Plan has disintegrated under your client, Kulongoski. Isn't that a weak spot for Democrats?

Voters are hip to the role of pharmaceutical companies, but we're not doing enough to demand more accountability and make the system more transparent. The solution speaks to government spending. Because of big campaign contributions, Republicans are reluctant to address this issue.

Do you ever think about running for office so you can make the case yourself?

Yeah, I do all the time, and then I stop and think, I wonder what the opposition's research book on me would look like? I see what life in the petri dish looks like.

What would the opposition's research dig up on you?

I inhaled.

Not that you have that tattoo on your shoulder?

It's a question mark. I make my living asking questions. I went with a former business partner about two years ago to Tiger Lilly [a Northeast Portland tattoo parlor] in between a poll and a conference call. The symbol is kind of our family coat of arms. My father taught us to question everything, especially authority. My brother put the mark on his flak jacket when he was in Vietnam.

You also co-own a furniture store. Are you giving up politics to go full-time as a furniture maker?

I only spend about one hour a week there right now. It's my 20th year in politics, but I have absolutely no plans to leave right away. I've got a lot of governors to elect and defeat. Gregoire's seat is up in 2008, and I won't leave before then.

What would surprise people about you?

I don't actually like to schmooze. I'm really shy. I don't mind standing up on stage and talking to 400 union members. But if I have to mingle, I get a stomachache.

Grove also co-owns an environmentally conscious furniture company in Southeast Portland, IF Green, with Tim Tracy and her husband, furniture designer Stephen Becker.

Grove and Becker's 5-year-old son, Max, is already an Air America Radio addict, she says.

Grove's clients outside Oregon include Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire.