The race pitting incumbent U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, a Republican, against challenger Jeff Merkley, a Portland Democrat, should not be a referendum on George W. Bush's presidency.

Nor should voters' choice come down to a question of which candidate has conducted the dirtiest campaign in an election that may cost far more than $30 million.

Rather than judge the two candidates by their party or the content of their campaign ads, voters instead should ask which candidate is best equipped to represent Oregon in one of the darkest financial times ever faced by the nation.

When the race is viewed in that light, we believe voters should retain Smith, who has achieved a worthy list of accomplishments in Washington, D.C.

After 12 years in the U.S. Senate, Smith is a high-ranking member on important subcommittees and an experienced member of the Finance Committee, the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

Smith has done a commendable job of partnering with his Democratic colleague, Sen. Ron Wyden, to represent Oregon in a bipartisan way. This partnership could be seen most recently with the two senators' work to extend federal timber payments to rural counties in Oregon.

Smith has advanced Oregon causes

While Smith is generally the quieter of Oregon's two senators, he has championed noteworthy causes on his own. Smith helped to win a large victory for mental-health patients when he pushed for parity in insurance coverage for mental illnesses. Also high on the senator's agenda has been suicide prevention - an issue that hits close to home for Smith, who lost a son to suicide.

Smith has worked for green energy. He has acted to protect the federal food stamp program. He has been a consistent supporter of federal funding for light rail and he was a late - but accurate - critic of the Iraq War. Those are positions that might not be music to the ears of national Republican leaders, but they are harmonious with the prevalent view here in Oregon.

While we are endorsing Smith, that doesn't mean we think his opponent lacks the prerequisite entry level experience to be a U.S. senator.

Merkley, who represents a politically moderate East Portland district in the state House of Representatives, has served in the Oregon House for 10 years. In 2007, his colleagues elected him speaker of the House.

Merkley has run an impressive and aggressive statewide campaign, but he also has benefited greatly from a national backlash against Republicans and the millions of dollars that Democratic organizations have funneled into this race. Meanwhile, we think that until lately, Smith's own campaign has failed to adequately portray his accomplishments for Oregon.

Consider the long term

In the final analysis, Merkley is the challenger and Smith the reigning champion. While Merkley certainly has bloodied and tarnished Smith, he has not knocked him out.

We hope Oregon voters will take a deep, thoughtful look at what's best for the state. The political pendulum swings both ways, and having a seasoned senator from each party allows this relatively small state to exercise the most influence on the national scene.

Granted, it's not impossible to reacquire Smith's seniority and experience - but in the U.S. Senate that takes years, if not decades.

It's not the time for Oregon voters to start all over again with a freshman senator. They should instead re-elect Gordon Smith to the U.S. Senate and retain a bipartisan team that is well positioned to provide for and watch after this state's interests.

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