Will the hot dog or the corny water decide Merkley/Smith race?

August 22, 2008 12:00 am

You can be certain a political contest has slunk deep into the slime when the candidates' mouthpieces brandish, as legitimate campaign fodder, a gulped hot dog and some chopped up corn.

Although I suppose tax policy can seem pretty stale by contrast.

The race in this case pits Republican Gordon Smith, who is Oregon's junior U.S. senator, against Democrat Jeff Merkley, who is Oregon's Speaker of the House.

This competitive campaign produced some significant silliness even before the hot dog and corn episodes.

Smith, for instance, put out TV ads chastising Merkley, in his capacity as a leader in the Oregon Legislature, for furnishing the state capitol with leather couches, hardwood desks and other furnishings you can't buy at IKEA.

Smith seems particularly perturbed about the Capitol's new credenzas. I'm not sure why. I've never considered the credenza an inherently more appalling piece of furniture than, say, a hutch. Maybe "credenza," which sounds a little like "credibility," just rings better in voters' ears.

Merkley, meanwhile, runs a TV spot that berates Smith for lavishing tax breaks on oil companies. The ad implies that if Smith wasn't such a toady for the likes of Texaco, then every household in Oregon would get something like 400 bags of groceries, or possibly $19,000 in cash.

I'm pretty sure the federal tax system doesn't work quite like that. Anyway, people in 49 other states probably would demand their shares of the groceries and the cash if only Smith would quit letting the oil companies keep so much of their money.

Nonetheless, Merkley's credenzas and Smith's tax cuts, no matter how patronizingly they are employed in commercials, qualify as substantive matters which ought to be debated.

Merkley's hot dog and Smith's corn, however, rest on much flimsier ground, as to their relevancy. If they were an iced-over pond I wouldn't skate on it, at any rate.

Merkley committed his gaffe earlier this month while he was campaigning in The Dalles. He was eating a hot dog when a member of the audience asked him what he thought about the situation in Georgia.

Merkley, still munching on the frankfurter, pondered the question but said nothing.

When someone elaborated on the question, referring to Russia's invasion of the country of Georgia two days earlier, Merkley chuckled and said he had been thinking about "Atlanta, Jimmy Carter."

A Republican whose job is to follow Merkley, in case the candidate does something stupid like take questions while he's eating a hot dog, preserved for eternity — or at least until Nov. 5 — the entire episode with a video camera.

Smith's backers pounced on the thing with feline swiftness.

"No matter where you are in Oregon, there is always a newspaper, usually a TV set and certainly the Internet," said Lindsay Gilbride, a spokeswoman for the senator.

She's right, of course.

Yet Merkley's mishap hardly disqualifies the man for serving in the Senate.

News of Russia's invasion had spread worldwide only the day before. It's not as if, as Merkley's opponents imply, the candidate had remained ignorant for several days about the most important international story going.

(Well, most important if you don't count Michael Phelps.)

Merkley's biggest blunder, I think, was his inability to at least recite some canned platitudes about Russian aggression.

Yet many pundits have focused instead on two other points: That Merkley mistakenly assumed the question was about the Peach state, and that he kept chewing on the tube steak.

I'd wager a fair amount that most Americans, including politicians, think first of Atlanta and Coca-Cola when they hear "Georgia."

I do — plus the "Dukes of Hazzard."

As for Merkley's etiquette — come on, the guy was in The Dalles, not Versailles. I doubt I'll vote for Merkley but I appreciate his lack of pretension. His decision to hold onto the hot dog could have been contrived, of course — he is a politician. But I doubt his groomers ever told him he should, no matter the circumstances, keep right on chewing.

The latest controversy to infect Smith's campaign seems to me even less relevant than Merkley's.

Last month, officials from Smith Frozen Foods Inc., the company the senator owns but has not managed since he was elected to the Senate in 1996, told Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality that the company's plant in Umatilla County had leaked into Pine Creek five to 20 gallons of water mixed with corn residue.

That's not quite the same as spitting in the sea, but it's closer to it than to the proverbial drop in the bucket.

Anyway, workers at Smith's factory not only tattled on themselves to the DEQ, they tried to pump the corn-laced water from the stream.

A spokeswoman for the agency said "there was no ecological damage."

That wasn't so with previous spills at Smith's plant. In 1991 wastewater poured into Pine Creek for 15 days, killing fish and prompting DEQ to fine the company $100,000.

Smith wasn't a U.S. senator then, though.

He owns the company and he is responsible for it, of course. But I just can't follow the path by which Merkley supporters try to link the leak of 20 gallons of water — water "tainted" by a grain I like to eat — with Smith's fitness to serve as one of Oregon's two senators for the next six years.

"It reflects a larger pattern, which is his company's record of polluting Oregon's waterways and his votes in Washington to roll back environmental regulation," said Matt Canter, a Merkley spokesman.

Well, if Smith relishes polluting so much, and has such disdain for environmental regulation, I can't figure out why he hasn't rolled it back so far that spilling 20 gallons of corny water into a creek isn't even illegal anymore.

Which wouldn't take a great deal of rolling, probably.

The bottom line for me is that Merkley is neither more nor less attractive as a candidate because he didn't have an immediate answer to a question about a situation which even current U.S. senators — Gordon Smith included — can't do anything about because they're on summer vacation.

And I won't deny Smith the chance to earn my vote simply because someone who works at a food-processing plant he owns forgets to twist a valve.

If Smith deserves blame for the minor spill then he deserves credit for his employees who admitted something they probably could have gotten away with.

Unless the Democrats have got someone hunkered down in Pine Creek, tasting the water every now and again, and clutching a video camera.

Just in case Smith strolls by, you know, polluting a waterway.

Or eating a hot dog.

Jayson Jacoby is the editor of the Baker City Herald.