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Smith a Target With No Apparent Foe

Democrats already have begun targeting Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) — and the state’s Democratic leanings support the logic of their efforts. But Democrats have yet to find the one thing they need to take down the GOP incumbent: a willing challenger.

Thus far, one candidate high on the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s wish list, Rep. Peter DeFazio, is insisting a 2008 Senate run is off the table, with ex-Gov. John Kitzhaber, state Treasurer Randall Edwards and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Susan Castillo also ruling out a bid. Meanwhile, Rep. Earl Blumenauer, another much-discussed possibility, is hedging, saying he’ll decide around Labor Day.

Other names also have been thrown around, but other than that of veteran Democratic activist Steve Novick, none publicly have committed even to explore a run at Smith, who had $2.2 million in cash on hand to close 2006 and is ready for combat “if it comes to that,” according to John Easton, Smith’s chief of staff.

“The Senator has never taken the seat for granted, and just like 2002, we are very prepared for re-election,” Easton said. “Certainly, in the category of grass-roots infrastructure, money and staff, we are ready for a fight.”

Democrats believe the Senator’s re-election is in serious peril.

The DSCC already has run newspaper ads in the state’s largest newspaper, The Oregonian, lambasting Smith on Iraq, which Democrats believe could be his biggest albatross in the 2008 race. Although Smith recently has been quite critical of President Bush’s handling of the Iraq War, Democrats believe his prior support for the effort will trump his latest position.

“Iraq is his biggest vulnerability,” said a Democratic operative based in Washington, D.C.

Lisa Grove, a Democratic pollster based in Portland, Ore., said Smith’s favorability ratings are decent. But she was quick to add that his job approval numbers are low and underscored that voters aren’t going to elect Smith to a third term just because they like him.

Oregon voters lean left and often exhibit a populist streak, with a significant bloc of independent voters figuring prominently in statewide elections. Democrats believe Smith has been far too cozy with corporate interests for Oregon voters’ taste, and — beyond the Iraq issue — say Smith’s overall record will prompt the electorate to break with him.

Grove believes DeFazio, Blumenauer and Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.), among others, would all give Smith a formidable challenge. She said it would be preferable for Democrats to find a candidate “sooner rather than later,” but she noted that the cost of running an effective Senate race in Oregon is not so expensive that the party’s chances would be hurt by a late-entering candidate.

“We are not Ohio or California in terms of what it costs to run. It’s going to take a lot of money to do this, but not in proportion to other states,” Grove said.

Democrats may be disadvantaged by not already having an announced candidate. But some party strategists note that now-Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) didn’t jump into the 2006 Senate race until late summer 2005 but still managed to raise the money and create the campaign operation she needed to oust incumbent Sen. Jim Talent (R).

Bob Moore, Smith’s Portland-based pollster, said Democrats are underestimating the Republican incumbent.

Smith outperformed Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole (R) in the 1996 presidential election that saw President Bill Clinton win re-election by a landslide, beating his Democratic opponent by 4 points. The Senator outpaced the GOP standard-bearer at the top of the ticket again in 2002, receiving significantly more votes than the GOP gubernatorial nominee as he trounced his Democratic challenger by 16 points.

Moore said a repeat of last year’s poisonous political environment is a concern for any Republican in a blue state — including Smith. But with a solid record on constituent services and some long-held left-of-center views on certain issues, Moore said a Democrat is unlikely to oust Smith based on who he is and how he’s voted in Congress.

“Gordon Smith is pretty popular in Oregon,” Moore said. “You could throw a Democrat head-to-head against him, and he’ll beat him.”

Smith’s recent support of Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski’s (D) proposal to raise the state cigarette tax was fodder for Democrats wondering if the Republican might get himself in trouble with the GOP base. But Smith is a longtime proponent of taxing cigarettes, so this move is unlikely to be seen as the kind of swerve to the left that will anger Republican voters, Easton said.

However, one subject that could cause trouble for Smith among Republican voters is Iraq.

By so publicly rebuking Bush, as he did in a speech on the Senate floor just after the 2006 elections, he ran the risk of alienating the GOP base, many of whom support the president’s overall policy on Iraq even if they are unhappy with how the war has been handled.

But according to Easton, Smith was well-received by Republicans at a recent gathering of GOP activists — the largest such convention of Oregon Republicans to meet each year. In a speech to the gathering, Smith explained his Iraq position.

Easton said that went a long way toward smoothing things over with Republican activists who had been concerned by the Senator’s pointed criticism of the president.

As for the Democrats, they are continuing to look for a candidate.

DSCC spokesman Matt Miller declined to discuss the committee’s effort on that front, but he said DSCC Chairman and Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) was engaged in a concerted push to find a challenger for Smith.

“C’mon. Sen. Schumer lie dormant?” Miller said. “At this point we’re just not ready to talk about it.”

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