IT SHOULD HAVE been a good day for Charlie Hales and his dream of serving as Portland's next mayor.

Early on Thursday, June 21, the former city commissioner was beaming in front of a pack of reporters sent by nearly every media outlet in town, touting his new pledge to limit campaign gifts to no more than $600 per donor.

Sure, the notion was first raised by his rival, State Representative Jefferson Smith. Sure, his staffers and Smith's had been contemplating a joint announcement. And, sure, Hales could also have declared a cap on overall spending (bad idea, he says), or maybe a more modest individual limit ($600, he told me more recently, "keeps the disparity modest").

But it was canny, cutthroat politics. Voters, this fall, won't remember who first championed campaign finance as an issue in the race. Going first with a solid announcement undercut one of Smith's core messages: that he's better on issues like transparency and good-government stewardship.

"I've gotten a lot of affirmation from supporters and new voices joining the campaign," Hales offered this week when I asked about voters' response to the pledge.

So far, so good. Like I said, Hales should have slept pretty well that night. That wasn't to be.

By Thursday afternoon, the Oregonian, at least, had moved on. Its editors were about to publish something that played into voters' worst fears about Hales: that he's an exaggerator, even a liar—or certainly someone who doesn't mind the store while his staffers and consultants do those things in his name.

The O examined a letter to the editor, signed by Hales, that appeared in the April 27 edition of the St. Johns Review. The letter, written by a campaign volunteer, expressed Hales' support for reopening the old North Precinct in St. Johns, a building the city's financial planners would love to unload for cash. But somehow, as published, it included unattributed passages from a 2009 Oregonian article about St. Johns and, worse, had Hales saying he was on a neighborhood tour he never took.

Hales didn't help himself initially; instead of waiting to comment and denying the subtext of the story, his early responses only fed the notion of a major gaffe. Later the campaign released drafts to the Oregonian, but not the final draft that was sent to the Review. (The publisher of the Review has yet to return messages seeking comment.)

The stakes are incredibly high. This flap brings to mind the time he had to take down TV ads that took credit for a city hall school bailout that happened in 2003, a year after he left office. And it exhumes the stink of his Washington vs. Oregon tax issue.

But Hales isn't saying much anymore. In a sitdown about the letter and other subjects on Tuesday, June 26, he said he clearly felt the story wasn't fair, but wouldn't comment on why—or say what he was doing about it. He invited a neighborhood volunteer mentioned in the letter, Tom Stubblefield, to talk about the issue his campaign first wrote the Review about: community policing.

It was a good conversation. I live in St. Johns, and I like that Hales wants to encourage more cops to live in Portland. But it's not quite the clear explanation voters are expecting. Let's hope that's forthcoming.