If Oregon Democrats want to put forward a U.S. Senate candidate who provides the greatest potential contrast to Republican incumbent Gordon Smith, they ought to select Steve Novick in the May 20 primary election. Democrats can choose among six Senate candidates on the ballot in this primary. But the real race involves just two strong contenders — Novick, who has provided the policy brainpower for many Democratic politicians, and Oregon House Speaker Jeff Merkley. In a year when Republican candidates — even established senators such as Smith — will face vigorous challenges from energized Democrats, either Merkley or Novick could mount a respectable campaign in the fall. But our belief is that voters, if they are inclined to replace Smith in November, will be looking for someone who doesn’t fit the traditional political mold. And there’s no question that the feisty Novick, who stands 4-feet-9, has a mechanical hook on the end of his left arm and speaks with sharp conviction, would break most anyone’s mold. He already has proved remarkably resilient in this campaign. Much of the Democratic establishment is backing Merkley, who comes from a more traditional political background. But it was Novick who first announced he would take on Smith — he didn’t wait for the Democratic Party to anoint him, and he is running now without the advantage of party support. Philosophically, Novick and Merkley aren’t all that different, although Merkley tends toward the pragmatism that comes from having worked within the give and take of a legislative environment. A danger for Democrats is that Novick will be perceived as so far to the left that he cannot attract independent and moderate Republican voters in the fall. But it has been natural for Novick to expose his passions during a time when few thought he could win. He certainly has the brains to run a smart campaign — and we believe he also has the will. The Novick-Merkley contest is an extremely close call, but if the goal is to provide voters with a vigorous debate and distinct choice in the fall, then Democrats should send Steve Novick forward as the candidate most capable of challenging Smith.