The voters in Precinct 50 of this Portland suburb talk about the decision on a new governor like family members discussing the choice of a doctor for a dearly loved and seriously ailing relative.

Their state is hurting, with unemployment 2 percentage points above the national average and severe problems in such traditional industries as lumber, forest products, agriculture and fisheries and even the new electronics plants.

Under its bland incumbent, Gov. Victor Atiyeh (R), retiring after two terms, the state has lurched from one budget crisis to another and has watched neighboring Washington and California out-hustle it for new jobs.

Among the independent-minded voters in this pleasant neighborhood of small houses which have declined from the high $ 90,000s to the low $ 80,000s since they were built in the 1970s, no one doubts that something must be done.

But who to call in? The comfortable, charming and competent family doctor is Republican Norma Paulus, a steady, reassuring presence in their lives during the eight years (ended in 1985) she served as secretary of state. She will find the cure, she says, because "I know where the bones are buried."

The gifted but controversial specialist some think should be brought in on the case is Democrat Neil Goldschmidt, the former mayor of Portland and secretary of transportation in the final years of the Carter administration. Goldschmidt says Oregon is sicker than it knows and can only be cured by someone who will make "tough choices," someone whose record goes beyond "computerizing the voting lists."

Despite a heavy Democratic registration edge, Oregon has had Republican governors for 42 of the last 48 years. Paulus would be a strong favorite against any Democrat but Goldschmidt, who parlayed his political and business connections (as a Nike executive the past five years) into a fund-raising lead in the state's most expensive gubernatorial race.

Paulus, who is not loath to criticize the lethargy of the Atiyeh administration, has been part of the Salem scene since 1970, when she was elected to the legislature. A low-key figure with a national reputation in administering elections who has worked methodically to become Oregon's first woman governor, Paulus holds a seemingly solid bloc of nearly 45 percent of the vote in both parties' private polls.

Goldschmidt, by contrast, is a volatile, dynamic executive, with a capacity to excite people -- and aggravate them. He was an activist mayor for seven years in the 1970s, blocking freeways and pushing light-rail and neighborhood projects, but this is his first statewide race. His percentage share of the vote has fluctuated from the high 30s to the mid-40s. This week he was at his high, and dead even with Paulus, with a crucial one-seventh of the voters still undecided.

He crashed last summer with an ill-conceived remark questioning the wisdom of a debate with Paulus in the town of Bend, or as he called it, "the middle of nowhere." Goldschmidt apologized for the phrase, but it hit a nerve with small-town Oregonians, suspicious of the fast-talking Portland politician.

A series of debates -- including one in Bend -- has propelled his comeback and last week he hit on an issue, crime control, that Republican strategists feared might work against Paulus. Goldschmidt announced his endorsement by 23 of the state's 36 sheriffs, and put up new advertisements citing his success as mayor in reducing burglaries in Portland at a time they were rising elsewhere.

Clearly stung, Paulus hit back in a Tuesday night debate near here. Citing statistics showing murder, assault and rape had all increased during Goldschmidt's tenure, the GOP hopeful asked, "Don't you believe you really should take that ad off television or tell the whole truth about your record . . . . ?"

"Not only will the ad not come off," Goldschmidt shot back, "but I am going to talk every day between now and the end of this campaign about what you and your friends in the same old Salem crowd have allowed to happen to this state. We are now the crime center of this country."

True to his word, Goldschmidt held another news conference Wednesday, where the sheriff and prosecutor of Multnomah County (Portland) both attested to the onetime Legal Services Corp. lawyer's fervor and effectiveness as a crime fighter. The most influential local television commentator, Floyd McKay, gave Goldschmidt a boost by describing his record on crime as "solid" and Paulus' as nonexistent.

Whether the crime issue finally pushes Goldschmidt to the front is uncertain. He has tried for months to demonstrate in speeches and detailed policy papers that he has more solid plans than Paulus for reversing the state's economic decline. But the doubts about him as an economic doctor center more on his personality than his policy, making it plausible that Paulus' explicit strategy of keeping cool and trying to avoid missteps could win.

The resistance Goldschmidt faces is typified by one voter, Phil Luttin, a loan officer. "Neil is unpredictable," Luttin said, speaking of the candidate by his first name, as many voters do. "He's much more forthright and takes a much stronger stand than Norma would. I was very much for Paulus when the campaign began, but Neil has been far superior in getting his plans across . . . . But I'm still not sure about him . . . . And voting safely in my mind means voting for Norma."

The same attitude is often heard outside the metropolitan Portland area. Bernie Agrons, a Democratic state representative from Klamath Falls, said that in his area of southern Oregon, "Norma is a familiar figure and a charming speaker, and until a year ago, they didn't even know Neil . . . . Now they've gotten to understand he's not the kind of Portland liberal they automatically despise. But he shoots from the hip, and we're kind of slow, phlegmatic people. He's a little bit rich for our blood.

"Neil says we need strong medicine to cure our state," Agrons concluded. "Well, he's strong medicine, and we're not used to that here."