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At Merkley’s kickoff

Jeff Merkley at Portland

Jeff Merkley at Portland

Ten minutes or so before Senate candidate Jeff Merkley arrived to speak tonight at his campaign kickoff, Portland City Councilor Sam Adams delivered his endorsement and introduction. He was sharp, quick, funny, energetic and articulate; even absent any other evidence, you could see right off why his political skills are so highly regarded; he was very easy to envision as a big-city mayor.

He was followed by Barbara Roberts; her energetic and happy delivery made it easy to see, right there, why she had done well enough in politics to get elected governor.

Merkley himself – after rolling in a little late but also a little dramatically in his blue-green campaign bus (all properly painted and ready to roll) – seemed a little less fully-formed than those two. There is in his voice a halting quality, a little catch, that for a second or two (no more) periodically makes you wonder if he forgot what he was about to say – except that he then continues and rolls on, and builds. He lacked a certain smoothness those others have (and Gordon Smith does, and Steve Novick). Something about his delivery seems subtly to undercut some of the emotion he builds; something in his style suggests a modesty calling into question whether he should be doing all this.

Such matters of surface style, though, are quibbles – the kind of thing that can be smoothed out in the months that will follow campaign Day 1, and may be. The larger requisites for a senator were there for Merkley, as he launched his first campaign swing. (It will continue south and around toward Medford, out to the coast, and elsewhere this week; a few weeks from now, it will be continued east of the Cascades.)

He had rationale, to one thing: A reason for his campaign, one that didn’t simply rely on opposition to the incumbent (though he didn’t shrink from blasts in that direction either). He focused in his talk on opportunity, talked at some length about his father and the difference between a society of opportunism as opposed to one of opportunity; it created a sound frame for much of what he wanted to say, and he seemed to bring considerable passion to it. Merkley has often seemed a little diffident, not notably passionate, but he easily breaks through that. Passion, rationale and coherence are there.

Energy and connection seemed to be there, too. Candidates for major office need vast supplies of energy, and Merkley did not appear lacking. The crowd (of 200 or so, gathered by sunset in the parking lot of the labor building behind Madison’s Grill on 11th Street) was obviously sympathetic, of course, but some of them wanted to be wooed – one woman held a sign saying simply “impeach.” (Impeachment was not a subject Merkley raised or alluded to, though he doubtless knows that his fellow Democrat in the race, Novick, plans to do so tomorrow – and it would have been a crowd pleaser, in this central Portland location, if he had.) Still, he showed some ability to reach out into the crowd and work it effectively. Campaigning skills are evidently there.

About eight months will pass till the primary election, and (if Merkley is the nominee) close to six more till the general against Smith. Merkley has a lot of what he needs; he has plenty of time to develop the rest.

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