and Brad Cain





PORTLAND &

With the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination now in hand after an acrimonious primary race, Oregon House Speaker Jeff Merkley is moving to focus his party on defeating Republican U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith this fall.




Merkley capitalized on backing from national Democrats to fend off a tough challenge from Portland lawyer and activist Steve Novick in Tuesday's primary.




Merkley immediately made conciliatory remarks about Novick, calling him "an enormous talent." Novick, in turn, said he stands ready to help Merkley defeat Smith, the two-term incumbent who's the lone Republican senator on the West Coast.




In the 5th District race, Lake Oswego businessman Mike Erickson emerged Tuesday as the winner of the GOP primary, but he could be dragged down by allegations released by his Republican primary opponent, former state GOP chair Kevin Mannix.




Mannix charged late in the campaign that Erickson had paid for a former girlfriend's abortion after impregnating her. Erickson said the allegation isn't true.




Oregon's U.S. Senate seat is expected to be one of about a dozen that's targeted by Democrats hoping to get to a 60-vote majority in the Senate. National Democrats have already signaled their interest in the race, with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee pouring $300,000 into television ads in the waning weeks of the primary as Smith ran his own ads attacking Merkley.




On Tuesday, Merkley picked up on the refrain of likely Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, who won a resounding victory in the Oregon primary on Tuesday.




"Together we can change the direction of our nation," he said, as the crowd roared back "Yes, we can," echoing Obama's now famous call-and-response line.




Merkley also hinted at the playbook Democrats will use over the next five months, linking Smith's name with President Bush as much as possible in his speech.




"We stepped forward to put America on the path of change, and on the path to Gordon Smith's and George Bush's retirements," he told his cheering supporters.




Novick had gained lots of support with a campaign in which he poked fun at his physical disabilities &

he has a metal hook for a left hand, the result of birth defects.




And he used his characteristic humor to try to buck up downcast supporters who had gathered for they had hoped would be a victory party Tuesday night.




"I've never seen a group like this," Novick told his backers. "We're like a group of guerillas that came down from the mountains, and almost took out the establishment. This group made me feel like (Fidel) Castro."




Smith, meanwhile, has launched a carefully orchestrated campaign to burnish his moderate credentials, taking out a full-page newspaper ad featuring Democrats who have endorsed him and running a campaign ad that stresses his independence while softpedaling his GOP ties.




Meanwhile, the 5th District could also be site of one of the country's most intriguing Congressional match-ups in the fall. Democrat Darlene Hooley, who represents portions of the Portland suburbs and the mid-Willamette Valley, announced her retirement this winter, opening up a rare swing district in which Republicans have a shot at picking off a Democrat-held seat.




The Republican race, in particular, took a nasty turn when Mannix raised the abortion allegations against Erickson.




Erickson has denied the allegations and on Tuesday he said the election results showed "people are tired of negative campaigns, tired of lies."




Erickson in November will face state Sen. Kurt Schrader of Canby, who easily defeated several Democratic rivals for the chance to replace Hooley. Schrader said he feels good about his chances of winning Hooley's seat this fall, and that he doesn't plan to use the abortion issue against Erickson.




"Democrats are campaigning on the issues that really matter to Oregonians," he said. "Who knows what the Republicans are campaigning on."




It was the latest electoral defeat for Mannix, who's made previous races for attorney general and governor.




Mannix refused to concede defeat Tuesday. And at any rate, the former lawmaker and Salem lawyer said he won't be lending his support to Erickson in the coming general election campaign.




"I cannot support a dishonest man," Mannix said.