Democrats Merkley and Novick point to differences on policy, experience in May primary election fight

U.S. Senate Democratic contenders Steve Novick and Jeff Merkley traded barbs before a packed Portland City Club audience Friday, in a debate revealing as much about their differences in style as their policy disagreements.

Merkley, the Oregon House Speaker from east Portland, likened his candidacy to Barack Obama's, saying he would unite various factions. In opening remarks, Merkley mentioned incumbent Republican Sen. Gordon Smith five times without mentioning Novick once. Then, in a veiled critique of Novick, he said, 'We need a politics of results, not insults.'

Novick, a former environmental attorney and political consultant, came out swinging by attacking Merkley's campaign tactics. Then he acknowledged it may be time to stop playing the underdog card, given recent poll results in his favor.

'I still like to call myself the underdog, but it's getting harder and harder to get away with that,' Novick said.

The 'little guy'

Both men hail from the party's progressive wing. Both live in Portland, yet were raised by working class families in rural Oregon. Both went on to graduate from Ivy League schools. Both picked up experience working for the federal government in Washington D.C., and later returned home to get involved in state politics.

They are a contrast in personalities. Merkley, backed by national Democratic Party establishment, is soft-spoken and speaks in measured sentences. Novick is feisty and uses his incisive wit to great political effect.

He compared himself to U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield, saying he will win rural support as someone who fights for the little guy.

'And I am a little guy,' said Novick, 4-foot-8 inches tall and standing atop a raised platform behind his podium.

Novick highlighted some of the few major policy differences between the two, noting that he supports lifting the income cap on Social Security taxes and raising the capital gains tax on investments.

'I think people making $1 million a year should pay taxes on all their income,' he said.

Novick also criticized Merkley for supporting a bill before the Legislature in February that requires immigrants to prove their legal presence in the country before getting or renewing driver's licenses.

Stick in a hornet's nest

It's not clear if the two differ so much on those issues, or if Novick is fighting for the liberal primary vote while Merkley has his eye on what it will take to win the general election.

Merkley, attacked by Novick for supporting an early resolution supporting the troops in Iraq, stressed that he wants a full and speedy troop pullout. The U.S. must close all its bases in Iraq or the insurgency won't end, he said. 'We put a stick in the hornet's nest. That stick remains an irritant.'

Many Novick supporters point to his quick wit and sharp intellect as the kind of non-traditional assets it will take to defeat a well-financed incumbent like Smith.

Yet Merkley showed that Novick's feistiness and dedication to principles could be a vulnerability as well. Merkley recalled past Novick remarks sharply critical of Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, wondering if that would be a liability if future Sen. Novick has to ask the next president's help on a bill benefitting Oregon.

'I have been certainly undiplomatic,' Novick conceded. But if Hillary Clinton can work with GOP leader Newt Gingrich, she can work with him, Novick said.

U2, Bono?

In perhaps the most memorable exchange of the debate, Merkley also drudged up Novick's criticisms of U2 rock star Bono for going around the world asking for Third World debt relief, while trying to evade taxes in Britain with his own investments.

Is Bono really, as Novick said, 'the most hypocritical person on Earth?' Merkley asked.

'Yes,' Novick said, without a pause.

'He is credited with possibly saving tens of thousands of lives,' Merkley said.

'Obviously, either one of us would do a better job than Gordon Smith, because neither of us is Bono,' Novick quipped.

After the debate, Novick supporter Alexander Almeida, a 23-year-old airport screener, said Merkley scored some points with him.

'I came away liking Merkley a little more than I did before,' he said. 'I still like Novick better.'

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