Merkley sets sights on Smith

Target - Democratic senate candidate focuses on GOP incumbent during local forum
by: Chase Allgood, 

Portland Democrat Jeff Merkley, who is running for the U.S. Senate, criticized GOP incumbent Gordon Smith during a swing through Forest Grove last week.

Oregon House Speaker Jeff Merkley brought his campaign for the U.S. Senate to western Washington County last week and made it clear who his target was: Republican Sen. Gordon Smith.

Merkley, a Portland Democrat, opened his remarks in Forest Grove Tuesday evening with a backhanded compliment of the incumbent, known for his blow-dried hair and warm personal approach on the campaign trail.

'He's a gentleman and has that $1,000 hair thing going for him,' Merkley noted during a forum hosted by Pacific University's Politics and Law Forum. 'But (his poll numbers) are down in the basement. Why is that?'

Merkley spent the next half-hour answering questions with variations of the same answer: Smith casts 95 percent of his votes in favor of President Bush.

On everything from health care and global warming to the ballooning budget deficit and the Iraq War, the Portland Democrat spoke about the failed 'Gordon Smith-George Bush strategies' and how Merkley would vote differently.

In fact, Merkley made it through his entire presentation and Q and A session without once acknowledging that before he takes on Smith in November, he must first win the Democratic primary, where he faces two other candidates - Steve Novick and Candy Neville - who finished ahead of him in a KATU poll released last week.

Merkley will get another chance to take on his fellow Democrats later this month, in a televised debate hosted at Pacific University (see box).

In making distinctions with Smith, Merkley staked out several positions of his own, including vows to:

• Eliminate tax breaks for oil companies and others that have 'allowed the richest Americans and special interests to feed at the trough of the Bush administration.'

• Fight for state control over proposed liquefied natural gas projects.

• Support 'cap and trade' policies aimed at reducing industrial carbon dioxide emissions.

Merkley said that just as the country is poised to put someone new in the White House, Oregon can make a change in the U.S. Congress.

'We need a president who will lead on these issues and we need a House and Senate that will lead on these issues,' Merkley said. 'Together, we can put America back on track.'