SALEM &

State Sen. Alan Bates announced today that he will not run for U.S. Senate.

The Ashland Democrat cited "unfinished business" in the state Legislature as one of the reasons he will not try to run against Republican U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon who is seeking a third term in 2008.

Bates, 62, co-author of a law enacted earlier this year that lays the groundwork for universal health care coverage in Oregon, had said that the lingering Iraq war and Congress' slow progress on health care reform got him seriously thinking about taking on Smith, who won re-election handily in 2004.

"At this point, my family, my patients, and legislative work for universal health coverage for all Oregonians takes precedence over a bid for the U.S. Senate," Bates said in a statement. "Although I am extremely gratified by the support and encouragement I've received in the last few weeks, I believe that my focus must remain here in Oregon."

So far, only attorney Steve Novick and businessman Ty Pettit, both of Portland, have formally entered the Democratic race for a chance to challenge Smith, the only Republican senator representing a West Coast state.

Among those still considering a run are House Speaker Jeff Merkley of Portland and former Jefferson Public Radio talk show host Jeff Golden of Ashland.

"These are all very good (potential) candidates; they represent the Democratic Party very well," said state Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, in an interview before Bates' announcement.

While there are only subtle "distinctions" among the potential Democratic candidates, whoever emerges from the May 2008 primary as the party's standard-bearer will be a formidable opponent for Smith, said Buckley, a member of the House Democratic leadership.

Jeff Merkley, who is expected to enter the race this week, is widely viewed by political observers as the logical candidate since the members of the state's Democratic congressional delegation have all said they are not interested in the contest, which could prove to be one of the most expensive and closely watched 2008 U.S. Senate contests in the nation.

Already, Smith has at least $3.5 million in his campaign war chest and promises to raise much more money. Meanwhile, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has vowed to direct millions to the Beaver State to help a top-tier candidate unseat him.

Jeff Golden, still considering whether he will jump into the race, conceded Sunday that if Merkley does run, with the blessing of national Democrats, his campaign would surely be the most well-heeled effort.

Saying critics have "complained enough about what's wrong with Smith," Golden, 57, said he wants now to hear about how the candidates will offer "a roadmap to a new country."

"I don't have a personal need to run for the Senate," he said. "I have a personal need for the direction of this country to change."

covers politics for the Ashland Daily Tidings. You can reach him at csrizo@hotmail.com.