Oregon Democrats have a choice for U.S. Senate between Jeff Merkley, a seasoned politician, and Steve Novick, a seasoned political activist. They are highly intelligent, very well educated and nearly indistinguishable on the issues.

Oregon Democrats have a choice for U.S. Senate between Jeff Merkley, a seasoned politician, and Steve Novick, a seasoned political activist. They are highly intelligent, very well educated and nearly indistinguishable on the issues.

The winner of the May 20 primary will square off against Republican incumbent Sen. Gordon Smith, an accomplished politician with a multi-million dollar war chest.

Either Merkley or Novick would make a fine senator. We think Democrats who are serious about defeating Smith should choose Novick.

A third Democrat in the race, Eugene real estate broker Candy Neville, is personally appealing but has no political experience and is a long shot at best, running a campaign with no money based primarily on her opposition to the Iraq war. There are three other Democrats on the primary ballot: Pavel Goberman, David Loera and Roger Obrist. None has attracted enough support to be a factor in this race.

On the Republican side, Smith faces a primary challenge from Gordon Leitch, a 74-year-old retired ophthalmologist from Dundee who wants to bring back the gold standard. Smith is the obvious choice for Republicans.

Merkley, 51, grew up in Roseburg and Portland and attended Stanford and Princeton, working in Washington, D.C. before returning to Oregon in 1991. He was minority leader of the Oregon House before being elected speaker for the 2007 session after helping to engineer the Democrats' return to power in 2006. Merkley deserves credit for running a smooth, productive session last year despite a narrow majority.

Novick, 45, entered the University of Oregon at 14 after voters in his hometown of Cottage Grove rejected a school levy and his high school shut down. He graduated U of O at 18 and Harvard Law School at 21. He worked in the U.S. Justice Department, eventually playing a prominent role in the Love Canal lawsuit that recovered millions for taxpayers who had footed the bill for cleaning up industrial pollution.

Lacking femurs in both legs — he stands 4 feet 10 inches — and with a metal hook for a left hand, Novick is hardly the usual image of a U.S. senator. But then his candidacy is hardly conventional, either.

With a razor-sharp intellect and a wit to match, Novick is more combative than Merkley, and less afraid to take edgy positions and stick to them. For example, he supports lifting the cap on Social Security taxes on income above $100,000; Merkley doesn't.

Novick says he's talked to rich and powerful Oregonians who agree with him that exempting high incomes doesn't make sense.

"I am absolutely convinced that people are ready to do what it takes" to make fundamental changes, Novick says. "People don't want to hear 'something for nothing.' "

Some observers discount Novick because he hasn't served as a legislator while Merkley has, saying he would be less effective. We don't buy that for a minute.

Novick was chief of staff for the Senate Democrats in Salem, and has spent years running campaigns and working behind the scenes in the legislative process. He makes a convincing case that he would be a tough negotiator for legislation he wanted to see passed. He exhibits a clear grasp of budget and public policy issues and clearly understands how the legislative process works.

When asked about his experience, Novick points to senators such as the late Paul Wellstone of Minnesota and Oregon's own Wayne Morse, who won election with no legislative background.

In the general election campaign, Smith will likely tack toward the left to appeal to Oregon's Democrats, and we see the possibility that Merkley would drift to the right. We have no doubt that Novick would stick to his guns, giving voters a clear choice in November.