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Oregon Senate candidates push dueling narratives

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Democratic U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley wants to talk about taxes and the middle class. His Republican rival, Monica Wehby, would love to talk about the federal health care law.

In dueling press events Friday, both tried to advance their preferred narrative for a race that's about to heat up. A conservative political group with ties to the billionaire Koch brothers will go on the air next week with a three-month advertising blitz that's likely to boost Wehby, attack Merkley or both.

Ballots hit mailboxes in October and are due back Nov. 4.

In a conference call with reporters, Wehby said the health care law has failed to deliver on its goal of providing affordable, accessible coverage for everyone.

"Really what it did was take away Oregonians' choice," Wehby said of President Barack Obama's health care overhaul, which Merkley supports. "It's damaged the doctor-patient relationship significantly. It's ruined our ability to choose the plan we want. For many Oregonians, it's caused a significant increase in cost."

Wehby, a children's neurosurgeon from Portland making her first run for elected office, opposes the law's insurance mandates for individuals and businesses. She says its minimum insurance standards force some people to buy more coverage than they want.

In his own news conference, Merkley acknowledged that the rollout of the law "was a debacle," particularly in Oregon, the only state that never was able to launch an online marketplace allowing people to sign up for insurance coverage. Oregonians had to use a complicated and confusing old-fashioned application process.

"What is clear is that despite folks having to go to paper applications, the Affordable Care Act has had some enormously important impacts in changing the predatory practices of insurance companies," Merkley said. Hundreds of thousands of uninsured Oregonians have gained access to care, he said, although an exact number isn't known yet.

Merkley slammed Wehby's economic policies, saying they would hurt the middle class. He called out her support for permanently extending President George W. Bush's tax cuts and her suggestion that the U.S. should look at a so-called territorial tax system, which she says would spur job creation but Merkley says would encourage companies to move positions abroad.

Merkley emphasized his family's blue-collar roots, saying his father's work as a millwright, homebuilder and mechanic provided enough income for the family to buy a home and send the children to college. But those jobs are becoming too scarce, he said.

He zeroed in on Wehby's statements about an election-year bill blocked Wednesday by Senate Republicans. It would have limited tax breaks for U.S. companies that move operations overseas while creating incentives to bring jobs based in other countries to the United States.

"A middle wage job is a foundation for a family," Merkley said. "We need a lot more of them, and this bill would have done a very positive impact in creating those jobs here."

Wehby's campaign sharply criticized the bill when the Senate voted Wednesday, but in her conference call, she declined to say how she'd vote because she said she hadn't read the bill.

Her spokesman, Dean Petrone, later followed up with a statement from the candidate: "This legislation perfectly encapsulates all that is wrong with Washington." The statement called the bill, which was backed by every Senate Democrat and opposed by all but one Republican, "an election year gimmick."

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