July 22, 2002 11:00 pm

Ted Kulongoski and Kevin Mannix, one of whom will be governor in January, told Oregon's newspaper publishers and editors Friday that bridging the divide that exists between regions in Oregon will be a priority for both of them if elected to the state's top job.

NO ONE REALLY expected either of the candidates to say otherwise when asked how the rural areas of the state could avoid the lack of attention they received during the state's economic boom in the 1990s. Both pledged that they will be in Eastern Oregon during the campaign and won't forget the region once in office.

But as those of us in rural areas know only too well, rhetoric comes easy for candidates. The follow-through is what counts.

The rural areas of Oregon have struggled ever since policy shifted reliance away from the natural resources that built the rural West. Small towns haven't been the same since. Kulongoski and Mannix both pledged to do what they can to bring rural Oregon back into the mainstream of Oregon life.

FOR MOST OF US, that should translate into more jobs and providing the kind of economy that can sustain families. Declining enrollment is wreaking havoc with our schools. Many families can no longer afford the rural lifestyle, so they leave to seek jobs elsewhere. The tourism base that many communities have gone after doesn't provide the kind of wages that can keep families afloat. You can only have so many tourist traps and service-sector jobs before your community becomes one divided between the haves and the have-nots.

Neither Kulongoski nor Mannix offered solutions to the state's or the rural areas' economic plight. Both said their goal would be to "grow the economy.''

Oregon needs more than sound bites from its gubernatorial candidates. Oregon needs solutions to the economic predicament it finds itself in every few years. The candidates need to step up with some ideas beyond simply waiting for the economy to turn around.

THE ECONOMIC SURGE of the '90s missed our section of the state and other parts of rural Oregon. The state's next surge won't help rural areas unless some strides are made at the state level to include all of Oregon as important.

Oregon needs leadership — starting with the governor and continuing into the Legislature. Oregon needs a plan for the future and someone who can guide it.

The candidate for governor who steps up with a blueprint for the future — one for all of Oregon — and can get voters behind it will be the one who wins the election in November.