Republicans close ranks around Smith


SEASIDE - Last year, U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith got a less-than-rousing reception when he spoke at the GOP's annual gathering in this coastal Oregon town.

The two-term incumbent was coming off several high-profile breaks with his party, including a denunciation of the Iraq war and support for a Democratic plan to raise cigarette taxes in order to fund children's health care, and there was open grumbling among the Republican true believers about his turncoat tendencies.

This year, though, with Smith facing a potentially difficult general election in a Democratic-leaning state, the fences appear to have been mended.

"This is going to be a tough campaign," Smith said in a Saturday afternoon speech that his aides said he'd written himself and had been working on for weeks. "Now, if you're like me, you've never met anyone you agree with 100 percent of the time. But I've been there most of the time. Having been there for you, I ask you now to be there for me."

Last year at this time, hardcore conservatives were so peeved with Smith there was talk about floating a primary challenge to him from the right, perhaps from initiative activist and one-time Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Sizemore.

But though Sizemore was making the rounds at the Dorchester Conference, there wasn't a peep about his candidacy on Saturday. Instead, rank-and-file Republicans said they were ready to close ranks around Smith.

"I don't necessarily agree with Gordon Smith all the time, but I agree with him most of the time," said Nina Avery, from Lane County. "But I feel that where he stands is much more to my beliefs than any Democrat."

Jim Haynes, of Sherwood, said he considers himself a hawk, who believes in "strong reactions to despots," and had his quarrels with Smith's 2006 about-face on Iraq.

"But I will overlook a lot of things for the building of a strong economy," he said. "Gordon is a business guy."

Smith said the drop-off in violence after the U.S. increased its troop presence in Iraq earlier this year, a move he said he supported, had helped to smooth the waters between himself and the Republican base.

"What was there about the first four years that was worthy of defending?" he asked in an interview with The AP. "It was a failure. Now, we've been more successful. Now, it's time to reposition our troops for a longer war on terror."

Throughout his political career, Smith has had to strike an uneasy balance between the demands and loyalties of his party affiliation and a moderate Oregon electorate. Saturday's speech touched on both bases: "I believe water is for more than drinking, and trees are for more than hugging," he declared to applause, while vowing that under his watch, there would be "no logger left behind, no rancher left behind."

But he also made a plea for pragmatism, evident in the new slogan on buttons and T-shirts unveiled by his campaign: "Common ground for the common good," - though there was no mention of his Republican affiliation to be found.

"Whether it is red or blue, left or right, urban or rural, taxes, health care, energy or the economy, you will find in all of those areas, I have found common ground for the common good," Smith said.

So far in the campaign, Smith has avoided much mention of the two Democrats duking it out in the primary: House Speaker Jeff Merkley, D-Portland and Portland lawyer and activist Steve Novick. But in Saturday's speech, he made oblique references to his opponents, saying that the two have "spent their careers trying to raise taxes on as many people as possible."

A spokesman for the Democratic Party of Oregon dismissed the line, saying it proved that Smith "knows he has lost his grasp on Oregonians' support, so he has to start lashing out at his opponents.

But among the GOP faithful, the reference to taxes drew big applause, suggesting that fiscal issues could be a central theme of the fall campaign, and a surefire way to keep Republicans in the fold.

"He needs to get the swing vote," said John Winquist of Tigard, a longtime Republican who said he'd been to 30 Dorchester Conventions, and worked on former Sen. Bob Packwood's first Senate run. "Republicans have lost before because of challenges from the far right. If we want to win statewide, we've got to have the big tent."

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