Pendleton debate: Candy Neville, Steve Novick, Jeff Merkley, David Loera
Snow is on the ground at Pendleton, and scatterings of ice on the roads in town. The debate for the Democratic candidates competing to oppose Republican Senator Gordon Smith was set up fr a small room in the Pendleton Convention Center, with seating for 30 people or so. By starting time, they had to break away a wall and almost triple the seating space. The debate among these Democrats seemed to draw some interest in Smith's Republican home town.
The approach was standard press conference (the qiestoners were from the East Oregonian daily paper, which sponsored the event); the candidates had no real opportunity to question each other. But they did cover many of the major topics, from Iraq to health care, immigration, housing finance, No Child Left Behind and Columbia River water withdrawal (a heavy topic east of the Cascades). All four candidates - David Loera of Salem, House Speaker Jeff Merkley, Portland activist Steve Novick and Eugene realtor Candy Neville - and all from the west end of the state, were there.
There weren't, in sum, a lot of policy differences here; nor breakthroughs, or any particular crash or burn. Nor were there any fireworks; the candidates all focused their fire on Smith and President George W. Bush. (They did say they approved of one part of Smith's record, that dealing with the Indian tribes, which have endorsed the Republican.) The only real inter-candidate shot, briefly and not clearly explained, came from Loera of Salem, against Merkley (having something to do with a meeting at the legislature). Merkley's and Novick's supporters have been blasting each other of late, but the candidates themselves did not at Pendleton, even going out of their way to agree on various specifics.
We'd not seen Neville in action before, and considering her newness to the field came off quite well - passionate, energetic, generally knowledgeable and good at making connections. (She came up with some nice homely metaphors, at one point drawing a neat connection between a poorly-grounded electric stove and the No Child Left Behind program.) Her keynote issue seems to be Iraq, but she had a good deal to say on other topics. Against candidates much more experienced at this sort of thing, she held her own. If Neville doesn't clear this primary (and the odds are against), you can imagine Eugene Democrats seizing on her for another race down the road.
Loera was a less clear presence. He seemed mostly in agreement with the others (though his stance on illegal immigration seemed to be a "throw the doors open" approach not mirrored by the others).
Merkley and Novick mostly stuck to their usual limes, but each got off some good lines. Merkley nicely framed a lot of the economic-related discussion by suggesting, "The Bush economy isn't working for any of us." Portlander Novick did the fun line of the evening, saying the question from Umatilla County had to be: "How can a kid from a small city like Cottage Grove represent a big city like Pendleton? I'll give it my best shot." It got a laugh.