Oregon Republican Sen. Gordon Smith is facing a tough fight to save his job in a competitive re-election battle against Democratic state House Speaker Jeff Merkley.
Smith, known as a centrist, appears to be grappling with the impact of a wave of dissatisfaction with Republican lawmakers and a conservative third-party candidate who continues to chip away at his support.
The Oregon race is one of several key matchups where Democrats hope to pick up a Senate seat from the GOP, which under pressure amid a worsening economic crisis and President Bush's low popularity readings.
For Democrats, the chance to build on their Senate seat gains from the 2006 election means they could reach 60 seats to create a filibuster-proof majority.
An analysis of polling in the Oregon race compiled by poll aggregator fivethirtyeight.com gives Merkley a slight lead. Another poll aggregator, RealClearPolitics.com, also gives Merkley a slim lead of around three points in mid-October polling. The race is ranked as a tossup in the NPR/NewsHour election map.
Smith, seeking his third Senate term, led the race by eight points in August, according to polling by Rasmussen Reports. But after the upheaval of some of America's largest financial institutions in September, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, as well as Merkley, saw a surge in their poll numbers.
Smith's campaign ad strategy underscores the tough environment for some Republicans this year. The GOP incumbent chose to run an upbeat spot, which features Obama, and highlights Smith's work with the Democrat on legislation to raise gas mileage standards. Smith has also run ads featuring Democratic Sens. John Kerry and Ted Kennedy.
The Obama campaign has pointed out that the candidate supports fellow Democrat Merkley in the race.
The conservative message of Constitution Party candidate David Brownlow appears to be hurting Smith as well.
Jeff Mapes, a columnist for The Oregonian newspaper in Portland, wrote that Brownlow could get more votes than any minor-party candidate in a statewide race since conservative Al Mobley won 13 percent of the vote in the 1990 Oregon governor's race.
"I want Gordon Smith to lose, big time," Brownlow told Mapes. "Gordon Smith, for too many reasons, has lost the right to a third term. ... Conservatives don't like Gordon Smith, and you've got to make a decision: Are you willing to put him back again, even though you really don't like him and he's done a poor job?"
A Survey USA poll released Oct. 13 shows Brownlow with 13 percent of the vote and 9 percent of the conservative vote.
The recently passed $700 billion financial rescue plan has also emerged as a key issue in the Oregon contest. Merkley has criticized Smith's support of the measure, which was intended to help prevent massive failure of the nation's financial institutions. Oregon's other senator, Democrat Ron Wyden, also voted for the bill.
The Associated Press reported that while Smith has been a centrist who has criticized the war in Iraq and fought for hate crime protections for gays and lesbians, his Republican label could prove the biggest stumbling block.
"(Smith) has been a fairly popular senator," political scientist Melissa Buis Michaux of Willamette University in Salem, Ore., told the AP. "I don't get the sense there's a lot of animosity against him personally. But it does seem to be a Democratic year, so he may be swept up in the winds of change," she added.