June 20, 2001 11:00 pm

By Ray Linker

Observer Staff Writer

Mike Thorne is well known in Eastern Oregon from his 18 years in the state Legislature, but should he jump into the race for governor?

Thats what the Pendleton native is trying to decide as he tours the state after forming in March an exploratory committee.

Thorne was exploring in La Grande this week.

Ive spent the past few weeks trying to understand as much as I can about Oregon to help me frame up a picture, he said.

With five people already in the running, he could be the eighth person to declare candidacy.

If Thorne enters the Democratic primary in May, he could be up against just-resigned Supreme Court Judge Ted Kulongoski, former State Treasurer Jim Hill, and ex-Multnomah County chairwoman Bev Stein. Congressman Peter DeFazio of Eugene could also enter the race.

Republican Kevin Mannix, a lawyer and former legislator who once was a Democrat, said he would decide by July 6 whether he will run. Labor Secretary Jack Roberts and Portland lawyer and school board member Ron Saxton are already in the Republican race.

Thorne, a fiscal conservative, said no matter who is in the running, Its not a race against someone. Its a race that gets us to the point where the leaders can be challenged to take the state in the direction needed.

If Thorne runs, it will be partly on a platform that states: We must unite rural and urban Oregon around common interests.

Thorne, who will be 61 in September, resigned May 18 as executive director of the Port of Portland to commit full-time to basically do what I said I would, to decide whether to run or not.

Ive said that by early summer I would come to a conclusion that makes sense. Im still on course and probably will decide by mid-July. Im covering the state to help sharpen my understanding of the challenges Oregon is facing.

His legislative experience a senator from 1973-1991 gave him an understanding of rural issues. And his 10 years as port director gave him, in his words, a broader interface of global markets and an understanding of the diverse nature of Oregon.

The challenge, he said, will be to get rural and urban areas of the state working together. The challenges facing agriculture in todays political climate are almost mind-boggling, he said. People are trying to grow food, create a sustainable community. ... You cant help but be mindful of the challenges they are facing. In rural Oregon, people are so concerned about their overall economic condition that it is difficult to focus on things such as education and transportation. In the metro area, they talk about quality of life, ... their vision of ... education, energy, the environment, jobs.

All this has created a gap between the two Oregons. Were caught up in focusing on things that we dont agree on. The future is to solve the separation by dwelling on our similarities.