TILLAMOOK &

Many Democrats don't even know the name of their party's leading challenger to Sen. Gordon Smith, but that doesn't mean the only GOP senator remaining on the "left coast" is feeling comfortable.




Republicans' anger over Smith's switch on the Iraq war and Democrats' aspirations of bolstering their razor-thin advantage in the Senate mean the campaign for his seat is expected to be one of the nation's most closely watched Senate races &

and the most expensive campaign in Oregon history.




And so, 16 months before Election Day, Smith was present and accounted for at the Tillamook County Fair on an August afternoon, in a coastal town best known for the blocks of cheddar cheese that bear its name, ready to shake the hand of any voter within reach.




Only about 25,000 of the state's 3.6 million people live in the county, but it's filled with the kind of blue-collar, conservative Democrats that helped Smith win two terms in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by 65,000 voters. He has been the only GOP senator in the three contiguous West Coast states since Washington's Slade Gorton narrowly lost his seat to Democrat Maria Cantwell in 2000.




With the scent of fried food hanging in the air and the mingled jangle of horse races and a tap-dancing baton-twirler in the background, Smith hopped easily from voter to voter, with the practiced air of a politician who is to the manor born. He's related on his mother's side to the Udall family, a potent dynasty in Western politics for four generations, and his father was an assistant U.S. secretary of agriculture during the Eisenhower administration.




For years, Smith was a relatively low-key member of Congress, a reliable conservative vote save for a few instances of bucking the GOP, like his stance against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or his support for a hate crimes bill.




Smith was an early and vocal supporter of the Iraq war, but in December he shot into the national headlines with an emotional speech against the Bush administration's lack of progress. He referred to its handling of the war as "criminal," although a spokesman later said he did not mean to call the war criminal in a legal sense.




It seems as if Smith has been explaining his decision ever since &

to Oregon Democrats who suspect it was a calculated political move, to die-hard Republicans who regard him as a tepid turncoat. In April, he and Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., were the only two Republicans to vote in favor of withdrawing troops from Iraq beginning this fall.




"People will have to make a judgment," Smith said, over the lowing of prize-winning cows at the fair. "I'm at peace. I want our country to be at peace."




Smith appears to have so far dodged the "flip-flopper" tag so successfully pinned on John Kerry in 2004.




"He is able to cross over and speak his mind," said Barbara Swanson, a registered Democrat. "To see them lining up someone to beat him because of that makes me even more apt to vote for him."




Others say they care less about Smith's motives than they do about the results of his speaking out. More Republicans, coaxed by Smith and others, are expected to come out against the war's progression this fall.




"Even if (his re-election) is why he was changing his strategy and advocating against the war, I don't care, if it gets us to the point where we will withdraw troops faster," said Doug Henson, a Tillamook resident and registered independent whose son is in the Coast Guard and due to return to Iraq soon for a repeat tour of duty. "I'll be paying close attention to what Smith is saying and to what he is doing."




Democrats intend to do all they can to link Smith to President Bush, who has a dismal 27 percent approval rating in Oregon. But with Bush leaving office and Democrats in control of both houses of Congress, that strategy may be less successful than it was last year, when six GOP senators fell.




"I think the Democrats are going to hang on, and that's why I can freely vote for who I want to," said Hillsboro, Ore., resident Cheryl Dawson, a Democrat who said she plans to vote for Smith. "I think the country will swing solidly to the Democrats."