PORTLAND - Democrat Jeff Merkley is poised to topple incumbent Republican Gordon Smith in Oregon's contentious U.S. Senate race, according to Portland pollster Tim Hibbitts.

Merkley, the Oregon House of Representatives speaker from Portland, leads with 45 percent to Smith's 40 percent, according to an Oct. 23-25 poll for the Portland Tribune and Fox 12. Constitution Party candidate Dave Brownlow has the support of 3 percent of Oregon voters.

Davis, Hibbitts & Midghall Inc. interviewed 500 registered voters around the state. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percent.

Hibbitts pointed out there have been eight other polls of the race in the last month, and seven concluded Merkley has a comparable lead.

He stressed the race is not over, but Merkley has the momentum, and many Oregonians have already voted.

Both parties nationally are closely watching the race, as Democrats are striving to stretch their 51 to 49 majority in the U.S. Senate to a filibuster-proof 60 seats.

Bush is Smith's obstacle

In a Portland Tribune/Fox 12 poll six weeks ago, Smith was ahead with 42 percent to Merkley's 39 percent. That poll also had a margin of error of 4.4 percent.

In one ominous sign for Smith, Merkley has pulled even with him outside Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties and the Willamette Valley south of Portland. Those areas include eastern, central and southern Oregon as well as the coast.

Smith hails from Pendleton, and Republicans need commanding majorities in small-town Oregon to counter Democrats' sizable - and growing - advantage in Portland and the surrounding suburbs.

President George W. Bush-not Merkley-is Smith's biggest obstacle, Hibbitts said.

Only 20 percent of all Oregonians hold favorable views about the sitting president, according to the poll, down from 28 percent six weeks earlier. Bush's unpopularity, combined with the growing economic crisis, makes it a terrible time for Republican candidates, Hibbitts said.

Only 9 percent of Oregon voters said the country is heading in the right direction, according to the poll, versus 83 percent who said it's going in the wrong direction. Those are the most dismal numbers Hibbitts said he has seen in three decades as an Oregon pollster.

Voters are not exactly thrilled with Merkley, who was little-known statewide before the race, Hibbitts said. The record-busting television ad war on behalf of both candidates is making it hard for Merkley to build his popularity, while dragging down Smith's once-high reputation among voters.

But that may not matter. Hibbitts said the race is not fundamentally about Merkley's popularity.

New Dems give Merkley big lift

Among Democrats polled, 74 percent said they support Merkley, and 15 percent support Smith. Among Republicans, 76 percent support Smith and 10 percent support Merkley.

Merkley holds a slight edge of 39 percent to 35 percent among unaffiliated voters.

But Oregon Democrats' leap in new-voter registrations this year, partly due to enthusiasm for Democrat Barack Obama's presidential candidacy, gives Merkley a major boost.

Merkley lives in the David Douglas neighborhood of outer Southeast Portland, where he grew up, after his family moved from southern Oregon when he was seven. He helped Democrats regain a majority in the state House of Representatives, and led the House during the 2007 and 2008 legislative sessions. Merkley formerly worked for the Congressional Budget Office, Habitat for Humanity and the World Affairs Council of Oregon.

Smith helped Republicans recapture a majority in the state Senate back in 1994, and went on to serve as state Senate president, before moving onto the U.S. Senate in 1996. He owns, and formerly managed, Smith Frozen Foods in Weston, a vegetable packing plant.

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