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Associated Press: In a Close Race, Ore. Senator Hits Main Street

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Location: Tillamook, OR

Associated Press: In a Close Race, Ore. Senator Hits Main Street

Ryan Kost

Not 30 minutes after walking into the Tillamook Cheese Visitor Center and already Sen. Gordon Smith had picked up a copy of the recently released Tillamook Cheese Cookbook, accepted a block of Tillamook's best and taken a picture with the Tillamook County Dairy Princess-Ambassador.

"I was like, 'Sweet!'" said Princess Katie Peterson after Smith had left her to schmooze with some other constituents. "I'm gonna put his picture in my scrapbook."

Peterson's ballot was already in the mail, she said. Smith was her guy.

No doubt that was what Smith was hoping to hear. As the last Republican U.S. senator on the West Coast of the Lower 48, Smith is fighting for his political life. Six years ago, the two-term incumbent cruised to an easy victory. Now, he's in a close and increasingly heated race with Democratic challenger Jeff Merkley.

"We always plan for the worst," Smith said later. "This year we got it."

To keep from getting caught up in the Democratic wave expected to wash through Oregon, Smith hit the road this week — motor home and all — in a five-day tour of the state, making a final pitch to voters. The tour ends Friday at his home in Pendleton.

Smith was just beginning the second day of the tour as he nibbled Tuesday on some cheese at the center — "This is good cheese!" — and told people here about his commitment to rural issues.

"I love being here — even when it's not county fair time," said Smith, who, for extra measure, threw in a story about his wife once winning a hog calling contest.

"When it comes to rural issues," he said, "I want you to know that's a particular passion of mine."

Back during the first week of October, when Smith and Merkley had met in Portland for the first of two senatorial debates, Merkley arrived to a lot of fanfare. Supporters with signs crowded the parking lot, the KGW-TV studio crowd erupted in cheers and applause when he walked in.

When Smith arrived, there were some cheers, sure, but it was obvious enough that this wasn't his crowd.

The one at the creamery, now that was more like it.

People nodded along as Smith spoke.

"He looks so young," whispered one woman.

"I don't think he's gonna have a problem," said Tillamook County Sheriff Todd Anderson after the senator went off to eat — you guessed it — a Tillamook cheese burger.

"I know he's a busy man," said Anderson. "But I was glad to see him come here."

Anderson and others pointed to Smith's fight for county payments, his visit to the area after a storm ravaged it last December, even the way he helped send money to a local library, as reasons they were voting for him. Nobody much mentioned his political party.

After the burger, Smith climbed into his tour bus. Next stop: Hillsboro.

While he was in transit, Smith sat back on a leather sofa and explained his moderate pitch to voters.

"One party is not always up or always down," he said. "One party does not have a monopoly on good ideas.

"I think people understand, intuitively, a political party, as important as it is, is not everything."

In fact, he's staking his campaign on it. For months, through TV ads and press conferences, Smith has been careful to pitch his bipartisan credentials, even using his relationship with the Democratic presidential candidate to do it.

Kent and Justin Arnold, father and son, two "staunch Democrats," might be an indication the effort is paying off.

"While we don't necessarily approve of everything he does, we do appreciate the way he works with (Oregon's Democratic Sen. Ron) Wyden," Kent Arnold said. "They're a great team."

The two grabbed a few moments with Smith right before he set off on his Main Street walk.

"I wish he'd show up more often," Kent Arnold said. "What I think he hasn't done is connect enough with his constituents."

The tour is a start, they said. But they also wondered if it wasn't too late.

Smith and his wife, Sharon, spent most of their time at the Hillsboro Pharmacy and Fountain, a city mainstay where you can pick up some Tylenol and an old-school milkshake in one stop. A newspaper clipping from the last time Smith visited hangs on the wall.

Before the couple sat down for their second milkshake of the day, Smith made the rounds, introducing himself to everyone sitting along the fountain counter.

He took a minute or so to chat with Lorraine Leonnig. Turns out, they're both from eastern Oregon. Turns out, Leonnig had cast her vote — for Merkley.

"I thought it was a nice gesture," she said about the visit after Smith had moved on. Still, even if she hadn't already sent her ballot in, she didn't think his Main Street walk would have swayed her much.

"The days are numbered," Leonnig said. "I think most people have probably made up their minds by now.

"Don't you?"

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