The U.S. Senate is supposed to be a place of decorum, dignity and deliberation, but you would never guess that from the tone of the current campaign between Oregon's incumbent Sen. Gordon Smith and challenger Jeff Merkley.

The negative tactics in this campaign are insulting not only to the office of a U.S. senator, but also to the intelligence of Oregon voters. Neither side can claim innocence, but since Republican Smith is the one who started this decline into uncontrolled nastiness, he should be the first to put a stop to it.

It seems Smith should have learned his lesson the first time around - in January 1996, when Oregonians revolted against sleazy television ads that Smith and Ron Wyden unleashed against each other in the special election to replace resigning Sen. Bob Packwood.

In the final days of that campaign, Wyden responded to the public criticism by yanking his negative advertising from the air. Many people say his decision was the reason he came out the victor in a close race.

What about jobs, war and health care?

But here we are nearly 13 years later, and Smith - who recovered from the Wyden defeat and eventually replaced retiring Sen. Mark Hatfield - is repeating his failed tactics of the past. He started with incredibly silly accusations that Merkley, a Democrat and speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives, had given greater weight to remodeling the Capitol building in Salem than he had to the important issues of the day.

Smith then hauled out the tiresome charge that Merkley is soft on crime. And along the way, his TV ads falsely claimed that Merkley had cut funding for Oregon's senior citizens.

Smith knows that the supposed concerns highlighted in his ads have nothing to do with the congressional issues that Oregonians are most keenly interested in - the economy, the Iraq war and health care among them.

For his part, Merkley is trying to play the role of victim on the one hand, while using his other hand to engage in similar activities himself.

His most recent TV attack ads could be seen as a form of self-defense: They call out Smith for his negative campaign. But the Merkley camp also transmits an endless stream of e-mails accusing Smith of all kinds of misdeeds and most recently portraying him as a corporate polluter because his frozen-food plant was fined for a minor, self-reported wastewater infraction.

Oregon deserves better than this

Most Oregon voters don't much care that Smith's processing plant inadvertently spilled 100 gallons of corn-processing water into an Eastern Oregon stream, then reported it. That has absolutely no bearing on how this country can turn around its economy, improve its delivery of health care, or bring its troops home from Iraq.

A mere four weeks remain before Oregon voters begin receiving their mail ballots. This election is close. A Portland Tribune/Fox 12 poll completed a few days ago shows the race is virtually tied, with a fair chunk of voters still undecided.

The seat that Smith wants to retain, and that Merkley wants to claim, was held for decades by Oregon's premier statesman - Mark Hatfield. Do Merkley and Smith really believe that their current campaign does honor to the legacy that Hatfield built? Do they truly think that this is the campaign Oregonians deserve?

If either man has such a low regard for the people he would serve, he ought to drop out right now. Otherwise, both candidates should immediately cease the negativity and begin discussing issues that Oregonians care about.

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