PENDLETON &

It was supposed to be the first chance for the Democratic U.S. Senate candidates to highlight their differences on the issues and show their varying campaign styles in their bid for the party's nomination in the May 20 primary.




But the debate among four Democrats running for U.S. Senate produced no sparks Tuesday night, with the contenders agreeing on most issues &

they all called for an end to the Iraq war &

while studiously avoiding any criticism of each other.




The muted, almost genteel exchange was surprising given that Portland activist Steve Novick has been painting his better-funded, more widely endorsed opponent, Oregon House Speaker Jeff Merkley, as a tool of the Democratic Party establishment.




None of that campaign rhetoric was in evidence as Merkley, Novick and two lesser-known Democrats took part in an hour-long debate in the hometown of Republican U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, the man Democrats hope to unseat in the fall election.




The debate &

sponsored by The East Oregonian newspaper &

gave Democrats Candy Neville of Eugene and David Loera of Salem their first big chance to publicize their views. Neville is staunchly anti-war while Loera made a pitch for more compassionate immigration policies.




Democratic voters will get at least three more chances to see the candidates go head-to-head, with additional debates scheduled in the coming months in Eugene, Newport and Portland.




In Tuesday night's meeting, the Democrats did criticize President Bush &

particularly for his Iraq war policies and his No Child Left Behind education reform act, which they said was more focused on test results than on helping schools.




Smith came in for criticism as well, mainly from Merkley and Novick. They painted Oregon's Republican senator as being more concerned about protecting the interests of big business than the well-being of Oregon's working families.




Despite some recent testy exchanges between the Novick and Merkley camps, the two were cordial in the debate. On several issues, such as getting more water to Oregon's farmers and rural communities, the two said they agreed with each other's stand on the issue.




Novick has campaigned for months on the theme that he would be a better candidate than Merkley to run against Smith in the fall because he would pursue a more vigorous effort to help "the little guy."




Novick uses that theme in his TV ad that focuses on the most noticeable thing about him: he's 4-foot-9 as a result of being born with multiple physical disabilities. In the ad, Novick notes that he doesn't "look like the typical politician."




"But I won't act like one either. I will fight for the little guy," Novick says in the ad.




Asked Tuesday night why he didn't bring up that issue in the debate, Novick said it wasn't specifically raised by members of the debate panel.




"The questions were about our opinions on the issues. Nobody was asking us to draw distinctions between us," Novick said, adding, "We're all good Democrats here."




Merkley, for his part, said he was pleased with the "tremendous amount of agreement between the candidates."




"We're all trying to recognize that the U.S. Congress has not fought for our families, and that needs to be changed," the Oregon House speaker said.