EUGENE - The raucous tone of the Democratic race for the U.S. Senate nomination was in high form Friday at a debate hosted by the Eugene City Club, with the two leading candidates hammering each other over everything from Social Security to the war in Iraq.
Oregon House Speaker Jeff Merkley and Portland lawyer and activist Steve Novick are vying to take on Republican U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, a two-term incumbent with no primary opponent, who will spend the next 11 weeks raising money and watching the two Democrats spar.
On Friday, Merkley portrayed himself as a leader with concrete accomplishments, reminding the audience of about 200 people that he had presided over a legislative session in which the state increased education funding, seeded a rainy-day savings account and cracked down on predatory lenders.
But Merkley, long considered the front-runner with money and endorsements from party heavy-hitters, mentioned Smith infrequently, instead focusing on Novick.
And Novick returned the favor, contrasting his support for a plan backed by Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama to eliminate the cap on Social Security taxes that now kicks when wages reach $97,000 a year with Merkley's position.
"This is one of the issues where Speaker Merkley and I disagree," he said. "I've said we need to be straight with people, and talk about ways to raise the revenue to stabilize the federal budget."
Merkley, though, said no change was needed, a position he said Novick had espoused as recently as 2004.
"Social Security is solvent through 2041," Merkley said, calling Bush administration plans to privatize the system "a manufactured threat. I am so disappointed that Steve has taken the Republican bait on that issue. The tax does not need to be increased."
The two did have many points of agreement, along with the three other candidates at the debate, Candy Neville of Eugene, Pavel Gobermann of Beaverton and David Loera of Salem.
Both Novick and Merkley said they opposed immunity from prosecution for telephone companies involved with warrantless wiretapping, and that they'd support impeachment proceedings against President Bush, with Novick quipping that it was warranted "if only out of historical fairness to Richard Nixon."
That pledge left former Oregon Labor Commissioner Jack Roberts, one of the few Republicans at the event, shaking his head.
Both candidates are moving too far to the left in order to appease primary voters, he said, risking having to double back in the general election.
"Everyone unanimously said, 'Oh, yes, (impeachment) is how we ought to be spending our time and energy,' " Roberts said. "That's just way out of step with the voters."
There were differences, too, over Iraq, when Novick picked up on a Republican talking point and slammed Merkley for voting for an Oregon House resolution in 2003 that said, "We the House of Representatives acknowledge the courage of President George W. Bush and his Cabinet and support the decision to remove Saddam Hussein from power."
At that same time, Novick said, he had been marching in anti-war rallies.
Merkley fired back that Novick was misconstruing his vote, saying he had voted yes only to demonstrate support for the military and not for its mission.
"I have opposed this war from the beginning, in writing and in person, when, quite frankly, Steve Novick was MIA," Merkley said.
Audience members said they were impressed with both candidates, but Novick seemed to have truly struck the fancy of the liberal crowd.
"I didn't know either of them," said Helen Denzler of Springfield. "Merkley's comments seemed trite, no originality. Novick is an inspiration and an exciting candidate."
But Dan Herbert said he needed to know more about both before making up his mind. He called Merkley "a viable candidate. I will be interested in seeing what he has to say."