The two Oregon Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate, Jeff Merkley and Steve Novick, each held informational sessions in the last week for small groups of bloggers (Merkley last Wednesday, Novick on teleconference this morning). Both offered some useful background and some insight into the candidacies. (Hint to Republican Senator Gordon Smith.)
The meets were not exactly the same. Merkley's was a session aimed at getting to know the guy; in a small group (and apparently he's been doing a bunch of those), he comes across as easy-going and neighborly, if also energetic and smart. He made no particulary pointed remarks about Novick. Novick's teleconference was aimed more at campaign analysis and featured poll number crunching; as in other formats, he comes across as also edgy and witty, as well as energetic and smart. He did speak of Merkley (of which, keep reading).
Merkley is not a household name but he is the state House speaker and he has the larger share of establishment support within the party, giving him a sort of default role as frontrunner. The hazard to Novick is that he could move into the role of the outsider also-ran; but there is a counter-hazard if he go after Merkley hard, which is that he could be blamed in future if Merkley wins the primary and loses the general to Republican Smith. Novick has taken some heat for that already, for remarks which were not really very barbed (certainly nowhere near as sharp as Novick is capable of). And yet, some differentiation, and a case that he can win both primary and general, is essential for a Novick campaign. (Obviously, neither Democrat is holding back, or has any reason to, in unleashing their arrows at Smith.)
At the same time, Merkley won't be able - or probably shouldn't - act as if Novick's isn't a serious candidacy. Novick was quick to point out that in recent polling, he and Merkley scored similarly in matchups against Smith, possibly an indicator that their actual starting positions as candidates aren't far apart. Both candidates have real political skills and solid staffs, and may not be especially far apart on money or organization, either.
Some of that will shake out over time. Meanwhile, the two Democrats have appeared on the same stage several times already, including last weekend in eastern Oregon, and how they relate to each other. And there may be some evolution there. Novick's first take on why him-not-Merkley had to do with Merkley's vote for an Iraq resolution in the Oregon House in 2003. In his analysis today of the head to head with Merkley, including the polling and other factors, Novick didn't much get into Iraq, instead suggesting more generally that Merkley's campaign is more cautious and less bold (than his) on issues. That could be described almost as a stylistic differentiation which could have meaning in the Democratic primary but not so much in the general, and so might not hurt the party's nominee. (Does that sound like something Novick would think of? May be.)
The campaign evolution is beginning, half a year out from the primary and a year from the general.
Will be interesting when Smith weighs in. As, one of these days, he will eventually have to.