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Distinct In Styles, Deliberate In Approach

By Reid Wilson

PORTLAND - In Oregon, the concept of doctor-assisted suicide is not a revolutionary idea. The notion that the government ought not mess with someone's guns is also well within the mainstream. The state has an income tax, but no sales tax, and anyone who tries to change that will bring upon themselves the combined wrath of Oregon's approximately 3.5 million, mostly socially liberal, fiscal conservative voters.

Divided roughly a third of the width of the state by the Cascade Mountains, there are strong conservative areas in the eastern high desert, though new transplants from California are giving Democrats a chance in state legislative elections in wealthy Bend, in the middle of the state. Those conservatives are outnumbered by liberal Portland, a town that epitomizes the concept of a Pacific Coast liberal bastion.

The combination of four straight Democratic presidential wins, a Democratic governor since 1986 and four Democrats out of five congressional representatives would seem to preclude national Republicans from having so much as a hope of picking up a Senate seat. Instead, the state is home to a long tradition of moderate Republican statesmen, including former Appropriations Committee chairman Mark Hatfield and Republican-turned-Democrat Wayne Morse.

It is no surprise, then, that Gordon Smith, a two-term Republican seeking re-election in 2008, has held onto his seat. Smith, like Hatfield, whose seat he occupies, is said to maintain a good working relationship with members on both sides of the aisle, both while he was in the majority and the minority. Indeed, after losing to Ron Wyden in a race for the Senate seat vacated by the disgraced Bob Packwood, Smith won Hatfield's seat later that year, and formed a close working relationship with Wyden. The two routinely hold town hall meetings around the state.

Smith's opponent will be the winner of what is now a two-way Democratic primary between State Representative Jeff Merkley and Democratic activist and attorney Steve Novick. Whoever he faces, Smith will not find himself with an easy race. Oregon is strongly anti-war, and with the Republican brand in its current state, Smith faces the same dilemma as many Republicans seeking re-election.

Both Merkley, the favorite of Washington Democratic insiders, and Smith are thoughtful politicians, and they each come with profiles national party strategists look for in Senate and congressional candidates. Smith was president of the Oregon State Senate; Merkley is Speaker of the State House.

State legislators, say party strategists, are preferable even to wealthy businessmen who can finance their own race yet have no political experience. Those who toil over the 7200 state legislative seats in the U.S., the Republican State Leadership Committee and the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, are perhaps the least appreciated cogs in the Washington wheel, yet they are instrumental in preparing the next generation of Congressional leaders.

More than 50% of Congressmen and women served at one time in their states' legislatures, as did 40% of the Senate. Smith was, and Merkley hopes to become, a successful example of moving from the legislature up to the big leagues. "We believe that we're building the farm team of the future," said RSLC spokeswoman Carrie Cantrell, echoing the DLCC's outlook.

Though they followed a similar path, Smith and Merkley are approaching the race from very different angles. The first Democratic House Speaker in a generation, Merkley used his first session to push through a raft of Democratic priorities - a rainy day fund for education funding, anti-discrimination and domestic partnership legislation and alternative energy programs to stop global warming. The strategy seems bent toward increasing Democratic turnout, as he provides the base with red meat to chew on after years out of power in the House.

Smith, on the other hand, has never been a hyper-partisan. As Senate President, hailing from Pendelton, one of the state's conservative outposts, he might have been counted on to hold the line for his party. Instead, he worked with Democrats to provide light rail for the Portland metropolitan area and helped pass an overhaul of Oregon's health care plan, even though it had pro-choice legislation. "He's known for being more than just a Republican," says Smith's pollster, Bob Moore, of Portland-based Moore Insights. "People view him as thinking for himself." "There's more than enough examples [of bipartisanship, in Salem and Washington,] to relay to the Oregon public," said one strategist familiar with Smith's way of thinking.

If the war on Iraq is a major issue in the race, Smith, unlike his fellow Republicans, may be glad. After the 2006 election, Smith declared his dissatisfaction with progress in Iraq, which Republicans believe inoculate him to some extent. While Democrats still plan to make Smith's votes for the war an issue, their ability to do so may be hobbled by the fact that Merkley voted for a resolution in the State House expressing support for the troops, a vote Novick is using as an issue with liberal anti-war activists in the primary.

Still, Merkley is already criticizing Smith's change of heart. "We knew more about Iraq that the Iraqi government knew about Iraq," Merkley said, criticizing the reason for which the U.S. invaded. Smith "wrapped himself in the flag and didn't do due diligence."

"That's hardly a profile in courage," Merkley concluded, calling Smith a "political chameleon."

Smith begins the campaign as the favorite, though not by a wide margin. And while Smith and Wyden do have a close relationship, Wyden helped recruit Merkley, though he won't endorse in a primary. And the race isn't expected to be pretty, especially following Smith's hard-fought but wide 56%-40% win over Democrat Bill Bradbury in 2002. "I expect to be attacked," said Merkley.

Smith will likely perform well in Rep. Greg Walden's eastern Oregon district, though his big margins in the state's lone Republican district will be offset by Democrats' strong performance in the Portland-based district of Rep. Earl Blumenauer.

In order to win, the Democratic nominee will have to keep close in districts represented by Reps. Peter DeFazio, on the state's southwest coast, and Darleen Hooley, whose southern Portland-based district extends to the coast. Both are Democrats. John Kerry narrowly beat President Bush in DeFazio's district, though he lost Hooley's, while Bush beat Al Gore 49%-44% in DeFazio's seat and 48%-47% in Hooley's.

The key to a victory for either side, strategists agree, lies in Congressman David Wu's district, which extends from Portland's western suburbs through the exurbs and to Astoria, at the mouth of the Columbia River. More specifically, the district is won and lost in Washington County, just west of Portland, home to the state's largest employers, computer chip maker Intel, Columbia Sportswear, and Oregon's best-known homegrown company, Nike.

It also holds logging communities and rural areas between the coast and the city, and growing tourist areas by the sea. Kerry carried the district with 55%, while two years earlier, Republican gubernatorial nominee Kevin Mannix had won the district. In Washington County, Wu beat a highly touted state representative with 60% of the vote, while Governor Ted Kulongoski took 51% to Republican Ron Saxton's 42%. Still, just one Democrat running for State Senate in part of the county won a majority, while four Republicans beat their Democratic opponents there.

Smith can win re-election if he uses his moderate brand well, and if, like he has before, he can convince voters that he's more than just a Republican. That may be easier to do in Washington County, where Smith will be able to talk about Portland's light rail system and his role in shaping Oregon's health care apparatus, bridging the divide between suburban and rural voters.

Merkley's task is to tie Smith to national Republicans as much as possible. That will be more difficult without a distinction between the two on the war in Iraq. If Merkley makes the charge that Smith's opposition came too late, Smith will have a parry in that he does oppose the war. Merkley would also do well to distance himself from his home town. "One [candidate] is from Eastern Oregon," said the GOP strategist. "The other is clearly from Portland. Not only that, but Multnomah County, the most liberal county in the state."

However challenging it might be to unseat a popular incumbent, though, Smith has his work cut out for him too. "If the national environment ends up bad for Republicans in '08, it could be difficult for Gordon Smith," Moore, the Republican pollster, said.

Reid Wilson, an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics, formerly covered polls and polling for The Hotline, National Journal’s daily briefing on politics. Wilson’s work has appeared in National Journal, Hotline OnCall and the Arizona Capitol Times. He can be reached at reid@realclearpolitics.com

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