Since 1950 there have been two watershed U.S. Senate races in Oregon. Dick Neuberger's narrow upset victory over the incumbent Guy Cordon in 1954 shifted control of the Senate to the Democratic Party where it would rest until 1980. Being the first Oregon Democrat elected to the U.S. Senate in 40 years, Neuberger's election made Oregon a two-party state.

The second significant race was Bob Packwood's upset victory over Sen. Wayne Morse in 1968. It ended what was arguably Oregon's most historic Senate career and launched another that would rise in prominence but end in disgrace.

Like the Neuberger-Cordon race, Jeff Merkley's challenge to Sen. Gordon Smith is ultimately about control of the U.S. Senate. And also like that 1954 classic, this race offers two distinctly different outcomes, defined by the candidates' contrasting aptitudes and values and the difference in their tenacity and personal drive.

In a nutshell, at the end of 12 years in the Senate, Gordon Smith has not distinguished himself with significant accomplishment. That is ignominious for a man who talked about being Sen. Mark Hatfield's successor. Hatfield came to the Senate as an opponent of the Vietnam War. Smith's eventual opposition to the Iraq War smelled of convenience as it was announced at 10 p.m. on the last night of a Congress.

Smith is a relatively inconsequential senator. That is especially clear when one sees Smith's colleague, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden writing a tax reform bill as well as a health care bill - two monumental pieces of legislation that will be substantive vehicles in the next Congress.

By contrast, Jeff Merkley has distinguished himself in the Oregon Legislature. He turned in a spectacular session as speaker of the Oregon House. The 2007 session was the legislature's most productive in a decade. This happened because Merkley initiated several reforms to bring the two parties together in the House of Representatives.

The difference is this. Merkley is genetically programmed to be a legislator, as is Ron Wyden. Gordon Smith simply lacks that aptitude. He will never rise to prominence in the Senate because he lacks the kind of intense drive that one sees in Wyden or saw in Dick Neuberger, Wayne Morse and Mark Hatfield. What we've seen from Smith in 12 years is what we would get in a third term.

Smith's lack of legislative ambition can be mystifying. He deeply understands the need to modernize America's freight and passenger rail network. He gets the connection between investment in rail and the export economy. Unlike Sen. John McCain, Smith would invest more in Amtrak. But Smith has kept quiet about his enlightened view on rail. And Sen. Ron Wyden, not Smith, has taken the lead in seeking reactivation of the Amtrak Pioneer, which serves Eastern Oregon.

Gordon Smith is one of the nicest guys you could meet. But his distinct lack of ambition mystifies many Oregonians - most pointedly Republicans who have given to his campaign. Meanwhile, Smith's re-election campaign is distinguished by its devotion to triviality and the low road. Smith's television ads even trashed Merkley for creating a rainy day fund, which was one of the most significant accomplishments of the 2007 legislative session.

Wall Street's meltdown and the financial hemorrhaging that marks the Iraq War typify the gravely serious moment that will confront the next Congress. Oregon must have senators with proven legislative aptitude and a deep desire to make something of their opportunity. That is what Gordon Smith lacks and what Jeff Merkley has.

We urge a vote for Jeff Merkley for U.S. Senate.

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