Sen. Gordon Smith and Oregon Rep. Jeff Merkley finally faced each other tonight, in the KGW-Oregonian debate. Smith has been a big scaredy cat this election, refusing joint appearances with Merkley (Smith skipped the Mercury endorsement interview, and from what I've been told, he hasn't responded to KATU, OPB's Think Out Loud, OPB television, Oregon Business Magazine, WW, KEZI in Eugene, Salem's Statesman Journal, or Pacific University. So much for being accountable to the people you supposedly represent.)

Merkley, in fact, was in the Mercury's office this afternoon. Our endorsements aren't out until next week, but I can tell you this: He's a different candidate than he was during the primary, when Steve Novick was dogging him at every turn. In that interview, Merkley was wooden and unengaging. Not so today: With Smith his clear target, Merkley was sharp, explaining the issues in easy-to-relate-to terms. He was even funny, cracking a few well-placed jokes.

In tonight's debate, Merkley started off stiff, even in the way he gestured with his arms (he kinda looked like a robot). By the time Smith was defending his vote for last week's bailout--and insinuating that Merkley's opposition to the bill was a vote against rural Oregonians and their beloved timber payments--Merkley warmed up. "The meltdown on Wall Street is the natural consequence of Gordon Smith and George Bush's policy of deregulation, of taking away ordinary protections for our mortgages, for our families, and a deregulation of Wall Street, saying let's let the big banker boys do what they want at the expense of our families. It is outrageous."

He continued: "And the bill that Gordon Smith supported last week, it is a blank check. It doesn't address the core issues, it doesn't provide oversight of Wall Street... and because it doesn't address the core issues, it doesn't send a voice of confidence to the world that we're ready to take on these issues. I'm ready to take on these issues."

Smith, meanwhile, had the sort of blustery attitude McCain displayed during Tuesday's debate. While Smith didn't say "my friends" ad nauseum, he came across as the cornered, at-fault, out of touch Republican, the guy who's saddled with the weight of all that's gone wrong with the country in recent years, months, and weeks, and doesn't have a good explanation.

More after the cut.

Smith also had to defend his company against allegations that he's hired illegal immigrants. He's proud of his company, he says, and says he's "never been fined by the INS," because all of his workers are documented. He deflected the question by saying he'd put up his record as an East Oregon businessman versus Merkley's record "as a Portland landlord" any day.

"You're throwing these insults, you're disregarding the truth, you've called me a coward, you've called me a hypocrite on television. Let's address the real issues the citizens of this state care about... so much has gone wrong during your 12 years in the Senate. We are mired in war, we are mired in debt... and now we have this meltdown on Wall Street and ordinary wages are going down while the price of everything else is going up. People are in trouble. Let's talk about the facts and the issues."

In keeping with the theme of being saddled with his party's blunders, Smith was asked if he thought Sarah Palin is qualified to be president.

He's met her once, and says she's "a lovely person, she's a great governor of California, she's a strong executive. No doubt she has a learning curve, so does Barack Obama. He has about the same experience in government as Sarah Palin. I don't think it works to besmirch her. I think it's a wonderful thing that my party has finally reached out and included a woman on the national ticket."

Yes, he said governor of California. And no, he didn't say she was qualified to be president.

Merkley tucked in a joke, noting that Gov. Schwarzenegger will be "very surprised" to hear he's been succeeded by Palin.

Another highlight: While talking about corporate tax cuts, Smith got highly defensive and exasperated--waving his arms and pounding the podium--while Merkley cleaned up by pointing out that Smith voted for the Dick Cheney energy plan that put money in oil companies' pockets, while gas prices went up.