SALEM&

State Sen. Alan Bates, ending weeks of speculation, said Wednesday that he is "seriously considering" seeking the Democratic nomination to face U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith in 2008, challenging the Republican's positions on the Iraq war and health care reform.

"Health care is the biggest crisis facing our nation," said Bates, a physician, in a lengthy interview with The Daily Tidings. "In the last eight years, with Republicans in control of the House and Senate and the presidency, nothing happened on health care reform."

On the war: Bates, an Ashland Democrat, said that Smith, 54, made "a huge error in judgment" when he voted to give President Bush authorization to use military force to depose former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, but then changed his position mercurially amid faltering public support for the war.

"I know he's apparently changed his position on the war, but many of us from the very beginning were opposed to the war," Bates said. "When you're at that level you have a responsibility to know what you're doing; be very careful of your votes."

The 62-year-old Bates, who served in Vietnam from 1965 to 1967, said recently that the war in Iraq is "unwinnable" as was the Vietnam War. He added, U.S. troops remain in Iraq for "no discernable reason."

Bates said he's been considering a run against Smith, Oregon's two-term junior United States senator, for six months, but said he did not want to announce his interest prematurely, hoping that "somebody with a better chance and who was better known" would emerge.

Bates said he decided to express his interest in the race on Wednesday after U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore, announced that, "there is too much work to be done in the House of Representatives to take on a campaign for the U.S. Senate." Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore, said last month that he would not enter the race.

Acknowledging that he does not have the campaign infrastructure that Smith has, Bates said, "I would be a dark-horse candidate, but I do bring some things to the table: I'm a rural Democrat, a 30-year family physician in Southern Oregon and I volunteered to go to Vietnam."

Bates said he will formally announce whether he will run a few weeks after the end of the legislative session, sometime this summer. "Right now, my family is my key consideration in this," noting that he has a wife and a 10-year-old stepson at home.

Gary Moore, vice chairman of the Democratic Party of Jackson County, said Bates is "exactly what we want to see" in a candidate to take on Smith, now in his second term after being handily reelected.

"He has great credentials, and I deeply admire his integrity," he said of Bates. "I would just hate to see him leave (the Legislature) in the middle of what he is doing with health care."

With Democratic state Sen. Ben Westlund of Tumalo, Bates developed what he calls a "road map to a system where everyone will have health insurance."

Their proposal, outlined in Senate Bill 329, would establish a state-run insurance entity, overseen by a new seven-member regulatory board, the Oregon Health Trust, to establish, among other things, the benefits package and the amount the system will pay physicians and other care providers.

The Blogosphere

Bates, who has been the topic of conversation frequently on the state's two leading left-leaning political blogs as of late, conceded that he does not have much name recognition outside of his Ashland-Medford Senate district.

In addition, Bates said he would have to rely heavily on the traditional Democratic donor base for campaign cash to finance for what he thinks would likely be an expensive race.

John Doty, a longtime Rogue Valley political observer and contributor to the blog BlueOregon, said with Bates' experience in the House and Senate, he has the credentials necessary to be a viable candidate.

Doty, a Medford resident, said Bates has proven himself as a moderate Democrat with an impressive resume and broad bipartisan appeal, as evidenced by winning in a district where voter registration numbers favor Republicans over Democrats.

"I won't take long to propagate the buzz about Alan Bates," Doty said. "Democrats in LaGrande would much rather be represented by him than a Democrat from Beaverton or Hillsboro."

The two Democrats already in the race &

Portland attorney Steve Novick and businessman Ty Pettit &

have yet to attract "progressive energy" needed to galvanize liberals, Doty wrote in a May 8 Internet posting.

Kari Chisholm, publisher of BlueOregon, said Smith sides with President Bush 90 percent of the time, and, that Chisholm said, is "appalling" and makes him "out of step" with most Oregonians.

"In the last six months, he's been doing everything he can to kick dust up in the air to make it look like he is a moderate," said Chisholm, who also works as a Democratic campaign consultant, but not for Bates.

Among other things, Smith publicly endorsed an increase in the state cigarette tax to bankroll Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski's signature Healthy Kids program, bolstering his credentials as a moderate, not the ideologue some of his critics try to paint him to be.

Torrid Joe, editor of the blog Loaded Orygun, said Smith is "absolutely vulnerable," pointing to an April Survey-USA poll in which Smith had a 57 percent approval rating among conservatives and a 42 percent rating among liberals.

Alan Bates, he added, has "a good record and is well appreciated by his district," but warned that unseating an incumbent is rarely easy, especially since they enjoy franking privileges that allows them to send mail for free, to get their name out to voters.

In addition to Smith, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is targeting Republican Sens. Norm Coleman of Minnesota, Susan Collins of Maine, and John Sununu of New Hampshire in 2008.

Bryan Platt, chairman of the Jackson County Republican Central Committee, said despite Smith's rift with some conservatives, Bates, even with his political prowess, is no match for Smith.

"Senator Smith has made some decisions &

opposing the war &

that don't sit well with his conservative base, myself included," Platt said. "But when the dust settles after the primary, the Republican Party will strongly unite because the (Democratic) alternative is unthinkable, whoever that it is."

Platt added, "Like it or not, Oregon is a blue state, and Senator Smith is making some of his decisions based on that. I may not like that, but I don't blame him."

Jason Williams, executive director of the Taxpayer Association of Oregon, said just because Democrats say that Smith is politically vulnerable doesn't make it so.

"Since November, they've thought that momentum is on their side," Williams said, referencing Democrats' regained majority in Congress. "But that was more of a flash point than a tidal wave."

covers the state Legislature for The Daily Tidings. Reach him at csrizo@hotmail.com.