With Blumenauer out, Republicans see clearer field in Smith race


Another top-tier Democrat took himself out of the race against U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith on Wednesday, leaving the field wide open in a race that both parties have said could be one of the marquee Senate races of 2008.

U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, a 58-year-old Portland Democrat who is best known for his work on sustainability and bicycle advocacy, wrote in a statement posted on his Web site that "at this unique moment in history, there is too much work to be done in the House of Representatives to take on a campaign for the U.S. Senate."

Blumenauer recently won a long-coveted spot on the House Ways and Means committee, and also sits on a committee on global warming and energy issues.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Eugene, has already said he's not interested in challenging Smith, and former Gov. John Kitzhaber has all but ruled out a run as well.

That leaves the well-funded Smith, who has said he intends to raise $10 million in his run at a third term in the Senate, as the frontrunner in the race, despite Oregon's distinct Democratic leanings in the 2006 elections, said Portland pollster Tim Hibbitts.

"Is it good news for Gordon Smith? Yes," Hibbitts said. "Is he out of the woods? No. The dynamic could be far more anti-Republicans than it is now. He is the favorite, but I think it is not a good assumption to make, that he's entirely safe for a third term."

The only announced Democrat of note is Portland lawyer and activist Steve Novick, whose public profile is low, though he is well known among a circle of influential political insiders.

Novick said Blumenauer's withdrawal could mean that his fundraising efforts will increase, but said his platform &

on controlling health care costs, combating global warming and reducing the federal debt, will remain intact.

"Congressman Blumenauer was the only person I was aware of who was even rumored to be thinking about it," Novick said. "People can speculate until they are blue in the face, but this would appear to have been the last reasonable one."

But national Democrats, who have made no secret of the fact that they consider Smith a top target, don't appear to be solid on a Novick candidacy.

Matt Miller, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which could be one of the single largest donors to Smith's eventual opponent, said the party has a "deep bench of potential candidates. We know one of them will give Gordon Smith a good race and beat him."

Democrats are also urging patience, pointing to two other states where Democrats unseated Republican incumbents in 2006, Missouri and Virginia. In both of those states, a candidate was not finalized until just about a year before the election, Miller said.

Republicans, meanwhile, couldn't disguise their satisfaction at Blumenauer's decision.

"With first DeFazio and now Blumenauer, we are happy to see that Oregon Democrats agree on the popularity and strength of Senator Smith," said Rebecca Fisher, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Commission. "We are not taking any races for granted this cycle, but with the first top tier, and now the second tier taking their selves out of the race, we're more comfortable with what is going on out there."

Smith's office declined to comment on Blumenauer's decision.

Smith is one of four Republican incumbents widely considered to be vulnerable in the 2008 cycle. The others are Susan Collins of Maine, Norm Coleman of Minnesota and John Sununu of New Hampshire; Collins and Coleman have so far drawn announced Democratic challengers.

Though the Democratic field is still unclear, Smith is already in campaign mode. He recently staked out moderate positions on issues from children's health insurance to the war in Iraq, and took out a full-page ad in local newspapers touting Democratic and Independent supporters.

A poll conducted in March showed bipartisan support for Smith among Oregon voters, with 54 percent of Democrats and 57 percent of Republicans giving him satisfactory marks.

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