The two Democrats vying for the chance to take on Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., in 2008 have offered "precious little" of how they would "make a real difference," said Jeff Golden of Ashland, who himself considered entering the Democratic race earlier this year.




Oregon House Speaker Jeff Merkley and political activist Steve Novick, both of Portland, have instead built their campaigns' message on "what's wrong with Gordon Smith," and that is not going to be enough to defeat the second-term Republican, said Golden, a former Jackson County commissioner.




John Frohnmayer, who has Medford roots and chaired the National Endowment for the Arts under the first President Bush, announced today that he will enter the race as an independent, potentially changing the playing field.




Golden said Frohnmayer's entry into the contest is going to be the bane of the Democratic machine given Frohnmayer's appeal to Democrats like him, looking for somebody who can affect "fundamental change" on a range of issues important to Oregonians, including the Iraq war and health care reform.




"I hope that the irritation that Democrats are going to feel is not the only thing that people talk about," Golden said in a telephone interview, alluding to the third-party spoiler status Frohnmayer could be given. "Let's listen to the guy and see if what he says makes sense," he said.




Early last month, announcing that he would not enter the primary contest, Golden opened the door to supporting a candidate outside of the Democratic Party, saying the "problem is not Senator Smith but rather the rigged political system he's been serving the last 11 years, and that the solution involves more than replacing him with a Democrat."




Smith, who was handily re-elected in 2004, is seen by Democrats as particularly beleaguered this election cycle in part because of his loyalty to President Bush, who is wildly unpopular in the Beaver State with its left of center political leanings.




Bill Lunch, a political science professor at Oregon State University, said Smith has tried to paint himself as more moderate than his voting record indicates. Lunch said the turning point came when Smith delivered a December 2006 anti-war speech on the Senate floor in which he said that U.S. policy in Iraq "may even be criminal."




"I am not doubting his sincerity but it was politically very beneficial for him to do that," Lunch said, adding that "Smith is still odds-on the favorite."




There is a possibility that Frohnmayer could prevail in a three-way race against the Democratic nominee and Smith, Lunch said. "But for that to happen, absolutely everything would have to fall into place just right."




However, to hear Democratic insiders tell it, Smith remains so politically vulnerable that a potential third-party candidate even in the tradition of Ralph Nader and Ross Perot isn't going to thwart a Democratic victory in November 2008.




Paulie Brading, chairwoman of the Jackson County Democratic Party, said rather than siphoning votes from Democrats, Frohnmayer will simply "highlight the strengths and differences" among the Democratic field and "chip away some dissatisfied Republicans" from Smith's camp.




Agreeing that Merkley and Novick have yet to articulate a clear vision, Brading said there is plenty of time for them to do so, and that is precisely what Frohnmayer must do also.




"John Frohnmayer is the real question mark right now," Brading said. "What does he stand for and where would he like to take the state if he's elected?"




She said that Frohnmayer has good name recognition, primarily because of his brother, David, who was a longtime Republican state lawmaker and Oregon attorney general before becoming president of the University of Oregon.




State Sen. Alan Bates, D-Ashland, had "seriously considered" entering the race, but decided not to run, citing "unfinished" legislative work toward universal health coverage.




Bates said third-party candidates generally have a tough row to hoe since they typically lack good name recognition and the ability to raise the large sums of money needed to go against an incumbent, in particular.




"An Independent candidate is a hard sell, but every once in a while one of their campaigns catches fire," he said.




covers politics for the Ashland Daily Tidings.csrizo@hotmail.com.