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On the other hand, a decisive victory in Oregon would provide the inoculation against the Catholicism issue that Kennedy had hoped to get from Wisconsin, plus demonstrating that JFK could win friends and influence people out west as well as back east. A decisive win in Oregon would make Kennedy’s nomination all but inevitable. So, Sweetland writes, Oregon was almost literally Kennedy’s make-or-break moment.
KENNEDY'S PROSPECTS IN Oregon started out bad and quickly got worse. As the big day approached, though, some things started breaking Kennedy’s way. Some of them were very big things. Probably the most important of these was, it soon became clear that Morse had overplayed his hand. He’d waited until the last minute to launch his bid for the presidency, and it was pretty obvious to all involved that he wasn’t serious about being elected president — that he was running primarily to deny Kennedy the nomination. Other Oregon Democrats might have supported his position that Kennedy wasn’t ready, but they sure weren’t going to risk taking the blame for their party losing a presidential election. So nearly all Oregon Democratic leaders, including many of Morse’s personal friends, stuck with Kennedy even after Morse announced his bid. Time Magazine reported that Morse was furious about this — but Morse was enough of a political realist that he probably didn’t expect committed Kennedy people to drop everything and rally to his last-minute flag.
Kennedy couldn’t bank too much on that, of course, because Morse was still the most popular politician in Oregon. So he kept a suitably humble spirit about himself as he campaigned in Oregon, and tried to do a little pre-election damage control: “I’m hoping to be a good second to Senator Morse,” he said.
But, as he well knew, second place wouldn’t work. Actually winning the election might not even work if he didn’t nail down an actual majority of votes (there were six candidates on the ballot, so a plurality would have won him the pony -- but not solved his problem); already there were rumors of a last-minute coalition forming around Adlai Stevenson.
In the end, Kennedy got exactly what he needed from Oregon, and hardly a single vote more. The final vote tally put him at 50.9 percent of the vote — a commanding lead over the number-two vote-getter, Morse, with 32 percent.
Nationwide, the results were immediate. Kennedy’s nomination was never really in doubt after that, although a last-minute push was made to get all the other candidates’ supporters to unite behind Adlai Stevenson.
“The Oregon Trail for Sen. John F. Kennedy was really the end of a long, grueling cross-country tour de force,” Time Magazine wrote. “Pitted for the first time against a field of four, Kennedy registered a knockout.”
SO, WAS IT TRUE? Did Oregon effectively play kingmaker for the country in 1960?
Sweetland, writing from the political trenches, thinks it absolutely did. And although in his 2000 article Jack Ohman — the Portland Morning Oregonian’s editorial cartoonist, who was at the time a graduate student at Portland State University — expresses appropriate academic reluctance to make wild speculations, he qualifiedly agrees that it probably did.