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Democrats' debate sedate, not irate.

Byline: David Steves The Register-Guard

PORTLAND - Knowing that tens of thousands of Oregon voters were tuned in to Tuesday night's live, televised Democratic Senate debate, its three candidates appeared to be on their best behavior.

House Speaker Jeff Merkley, Portland activist and lawyer Steve Novick, and Eugene real estate broker Candy Neville spent nearly all of their hour in front of the TV cameras offering like-minded solutions to global warming, the Iraq war, health care and the problem many Democratic voters have with a Republican - Gordon Smith - representing them in the Senate.

All three agreed it was critical to end the war, both to halt the violence that has claimed close to 4,000 U.S. soldiers' lives and many thousands of Iraqis, and to divert the billions of dollars from the war to domestic needs, such as health care.

They also agreed that while curbing rising gas prices could be difficult, given the growing demand in China and India, actual fuel costs could be brought down if the government helped industry develop more fuel-conserving technologies such as electric cars.

All three said they would not support the expanded use of nuclear power, despite its lack of greenhouse gas emissions. The candidates agreed there was too much risk caused by possible natural disasters and terrorist acts that could expose residents to nuclear harm. They also cited problems with waste storage.

The hour-long debate was half over before the first moment of candidate-on-candidate discord arose.

Novick was asked by a panelist if he had the "temperament" for the collegial U.S. Senate, given his comments on blogs and elsewhere in which he called rock star Bono of the band U2 a hypocrite, Hillary Clinton a traitoress and Barack Obama a fraud.

Novick responded that he has spent 20 years building relationships in the practice of law and as a political adviser and activist. When he has sharp words for someone, it's because they are not standing on principle and need to be called on it.

"You know what? People like people who stand up for principle," he said.

Merkley pounced at the chance to question Novick's suitability for the Senate.

His criticisms of fellow political progressives, Merkley said, are "destructive and they are the politics of yesterday. They are the politics of tearing people down."

Such moments of Democratic discord were rare. But all three, and especially Novick and Merkley, were too happy to take shots at the Republican they are vying for the nomination to oppose next fall.

Naturally, the three Democrats shared a displeasure with Smith's conduct in office and an eagerness to criticize his votes and positions on health care, environmental protection and global warming, taxes and spending.

"He has no credibility on fiscal issues with his colleagues," Novick said of Smith. "He's for all the spending and against all the taxes."

Neville said she noticed months ago that she and Smith have one thing in common: "That neither of us had done anything progressive in the Senate in the last seven or eight years."

Merkley said Smith has been on the wrong side of such issues as the Iraq war, abortion rights, global warming, health care, and creating and retaining jobs.

"He votes with Bush and Cheney 90 percent of the time, canceling out (Oregon Democratic Sen.) Ron Wyden's vote, and that's just plain wrong."

Smith campaign spokesman R.C. Hammond said the senator is proud of his support for tax cuts as well as his defense of children's health care and other important programs.

Hammond said Smith sees things the way most Oregonians do: that the federal government already gets more than enough tax money to pay for what Americans want.

He believes leaving money with Oregonians will do more good more of the time than it would by leaving it in the Washington, D.C., bureaucracy."

Hammond also took issue with the characterization of Smith as a Bush-Cheney lackey. He said Smith has voted with Wyden about half the time and that, while Congressional Quarterly did find Smith aligned with the White House in 2001-02 on nine out of 10 votes when tax cuts, No Child Left Behind and key votes on the "war on terror" were cast, he has more recently parted ways with Bush on such issues as the Iraq war, stem cell research, Medicaid and children's health care.

The debate was something of a coming out for Neville.Unlike the two others, she has spent almost nothing on the race, has not aggressively raised contributions and has no campaign staff. But after a poll by Survey USA showed her with 12 percent - trailing Novick's 23 percent but ahead of Merkley's 11 percent, she was invited to Tuesday's debate.

Neville used the opportunity to take issue with a Portland newspaper article that said insiders considered her smart, sincere and naive.

"I want to ask you what I am naive about," she said. "Am I naive about the strength of our Constitution? Am I naive about the ability of the American people to band together and make changes?"

For Merkley and Novick, it was a chance to distinguish themselves from eachother on their resumes and styles.

Novick, a former U.S. Department of Justice environmental lawyer and an aide, attorney and consultant to candidates, lawmakers and campaigns, presented himself as a risk-taker who would challenge the wealthy and powerful to end America's slide.

"How do we get out? With a different kind of leadership, with leaders who will tell the truth, who will fight for the little guy," he said.

Merkley said he was the one candidate with a track record of getting things done - both as a community activist and leader and within the political process.

"I've devoted my entire working life to fighting for our children, for our families, for our workers and for our planet, and I will take that same fight to the U.S. Senate," he said.


Who is leading the Senate money race? Republican Sen. Gordon Smith has the largest war chest, with his nearest Democratic challengers Jeff Merkley and Steve Novick.

Smith: Raised$8.03 million; $5.15 million cash on hand

Merkley: Raised$1.37 million; $473,833 cash on hand

Novick: Raised$889,000;$195,000 cash on hand
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Title Annotation:Politicsn; The three U.S. Senate candidates find much to agree upon, including that incumbent Gordon Smith must be defeated
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Apr 16, 2008
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