What's the Dif? 

Democratic Senate Candidates Go Head to Head

IT WAS A BIG WEEK in one of the most contested political battles in Oregon. (No, not the Democratic presidential nominee race, which brought Hillary Clinton to town.) Oregon House Speaker Jeff Merkley and political activist Steve Novick are vying for the chance to take on incumbent Senator Gordon Smith—a vulnerable Republican with a multi-million-dollar war chest.

On Friday, April 4, Novick and Merkley appeared on the same stage in Portland for a City Club debate. And on Monday, Merkley released his first campaign ad—which was promptly compared to the ads Novick has been releasing (some only to the web) for the past few months.

Though the candidates have been sparring for months all over Oregon, last week's debate was a sort of debutante ball, introducing the pair and showcasing their similarities and differences.

The results indicate the two are largely similar on a policy level: They're both against the Iraq War, for example, and for universal health care, increased education funding, and renewable energy. In a race where 40 percent of voters are undecided in the race—according to a KATU poll this week—it's important to note that stylistically, however, the two couldn't be more different.

Merkley portrays himself as a seasoned politician who knows how to get the job done—he was instrumental in passing Oregon's domestic partnership law, and capping the interest rate payday lenders can charge in the state. But he does it rather quietly: You get the sense he'd be an effective senator, but he might not nab many big headlines.

Novick, by way of contrast—and as showcased in one of his first ads—styles himself as the guy you'd like to get a beer with, because he's the smart and scrappy fighter who's unabashedly progressive (he built a reputation by taking on Bill Sizemore, for starters), and loud about it (he's called Barack Obama a "captive-of-special-interests fraud," in one of the biggest examples of things you don't expect out of an aspiring politician's mouth).

"People are looking for leaders who are honest, who are principled, who are willing to give a straight answer to a simple question," Novick said in his opening remarks at the debate.

If you take the candidates at face value, the question for voters, then, is which quality they want in the candidate that will take on Smith. Would they rather send in someone who will trumpet all of the pent-up lefty frustration that's been accumulating over Bush's administration (an administration Smith frequently votes in line with)? Or would they rather march behind someone who, if elected, makes the stronger case that they'd be an effective progressive legislator? Both options represent change, the buzzword of the political season (it's a word featured prominently in Merkley's new ad)—but it's two radically different versions of change.

To answer the question, however, of which road to take, you've got to take a step back—and figure out if either Novick or Merkley even has a prayer of unseating Smith. If neither does, then who will put on the better show trying? If there is a chance, though, who would you rather send to DC.?

Unsurprisingly, both candidates say they can beat Smith. "Every poll has showed that I'm ahead in this race and the stronger challenger to Gordon Smith," Novick added at Friday's debate. And Merkley's camp counts on the tide of voters casting ballots for either Clinton or Obama to carry him into office.

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