Visitors to Ashland's bustling downtown loop Wednesday morning were treated to an uncommon sight: the tall, energetic figure of House Speaker Jeff Merkley, who greeted local residents and passersby on North Main Street as part of his effort to oust Republican U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith from office in the November election.




The visit from the Portland-based Democrat came during the campaign's sweep across many of the less-traveled regions of Oregon, billed as the "100 Towns Tour for Change."




"It's great to be all over the state, talking with ordinary people," Merkley said. "Everyone is anxious to start seeing some change, because everyone is facing the same concerns and feeling the squeeze these days."




Merkley, who rose to prominence two years ago by leading the democratic takeover of the Oregon House, gave a short stump speech on Lithia Plaza. He reaffirmed his commitment to core issues such as education, health care and a renewed foreign policy before commencing a walking tour of the downtown area, accompanied by a group of community leaders that included City Councilors Cate Hartzell and Russ Silbiger. Patrons of several local fixtures, including Bloomsbury Books, Evo's Coffee Lounge and Ashland Drug received visits and handshakes from the senatorial hopeful.




"We've lost nearly 70,000 living-wage jobs here in Oregon due to unfair trade policies that are shipping our industries overseas," said Merkley. "Gordon Smith likes to say that he's on the side of Oregon's working families, but when it comes time to vote he keeps giving away subsidies to the big corporations."




The rival candidates have been trading broadsides on the airwaves for months and Merkley took time to rebuke Smith for what he termed "creative accounting" in the incumbent senator's accusation that his challenger had repeatedly raised taxes on the middle class during his time in office.




"As a matter of fact, I closed corporate tax loopholes and voted to roll back top-heavy tax cuts here in Oregon," Merkley said.




The Speaker also took the opportunity to press home a strong anti-war message, calling for a speedy withdrawal from a war "which never should have been authorized and never should have been fought."




Merkley has used his opposition to the war in Iraq as an issue by which to distinguish himself from Gordon Smith, who has been involved in his own struggle to distinguish his campaign from an unpopular incumbent president.




"When Smith saw how the wind was blowing, he decided to run as a moderate," Merkley said. "But his record of supporting George W. Bush nearly 90 percent of the time speaks for itself."




The candidate found an enthusiastic reception in Ashland, traditionally a favorable environment for democratic candidates. Merkley has, however, targeted more conservative areas in his statewide tour. The campaign left Jacksonville Wednesday morning, after a meeting the previous day with community members in Klamath Falls, a Republican stronghold.




Recent polling suggests that the incumbent Smith is holding a narrow but statistically significant lead in the Oregon Senate contest as well. A survey released by Rasmussen Reports on Aug. 7 showed Smith with a 6-point margin over Merkley, 50 percent to 44 percent, with 6 percent undecided. However, as Merkley's supporters are quick to point out, the dynamics of the race have been notably fluid thus far, and Republicans have suffered a string of statewide defeats in recent years.




From Ashland, Merkley headed to a health care seminar and veterans rally in Medford. His schedule will push him north to Rogue River and Grants Pass today.