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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Oregon Legislature. This is a venue for political and policy coverage of the state government in Salem and its impact on the people of Oregon.

Oregon's GOP Senate Candidates Highlight Personal Stories

John Rosman

The race for the right to take on incumbent U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley is heating up in Oregon.

If you were a screenwriter working on a movie about either of his potential challengers in the upcoming Republican primary, you’d have no shortage of material.

Let’s start with Jason Conger.

A promotional video produced by the Conger campaign says, "He was born to '60s flower children, dealing with their share of drugs and dysfunction. His mother abandoned him. His father led an itinerant life. When he'd had enough, Jason struck out on his own."

The video describes the Republican's rags to riches story. The title? "Jason Conger: From Homeless To Harvard … and Beyond."

And yet, a real movie on Conger's life might not be that dramatic compared to one about his chief rival in the GOP primary. This one would unquestionably be a tearjerker.

A campaign commercial for Monica Wehby starts with this: "My OB doctor called me and said there's something wrong with your baby's spine and that we needed to look at terminating the pregnancy," says the woman in the ad. "The world stopped."

Wehby is a pediatric neurosurgeon. That means she performs brain surgery on kids. And the real-life mom in the campaign commercial tells viewers that Dr. Wehby was the first person to give them hope … in this case, on the way to the operating table.

"She just hugged me and kissed my forehead and she said, 'It's gonna be okay, sweetheart. I've got her, and I'm going to see you in a couple of hours,'" says the mother in the ad. "I gave her the most precious thing I had: I trusted her."

So let's review: an inspiring rags-to-riches story versus a doctor who saves the lives of children. Whose story is more compelling?

For now, it might not matter, according to political analyst Bill Lunch.

Lunch says primary voters are more in-tune with candidates' actual policy positions than in a general election.

"They care more about politics and they're better informed," he says. "That in turn means that these personal stories, while they're not completely punchless, don't have nearly as much impact as the ideological positions."

On that score, Jason Conger is decidedly the more conservative candidate in the race. And the two-term state representative from central Oregon makes no bones about it.

"I wouldn't be a Republican if I didn't think conservative ideas were better solutions to the problems we all recognize," says Conger.

Wehby has staked out more moderate positions on social issues such as gay marriage and abortion. But the two share disdain for the Affordable Care Act. Wehby says the President and Congress tried to do too much at once.

"We've got to fix this health care law," she says. "The goals were laudable for affordable access for everybody for high quality health care. But that's not what happened. That's not what we got."

Wehby's campaign has enjoyed national attention and national funding. She enjoys a sizable fundraising lead over Jason Conger.

But it hasn't been entirely smooth sailing. Democrats have filed an elections complaint alleging Wehby's campaign is coordinating its efforts with an independent Super PAC. And Wehby was a doctor for an Oregon woman accused of seeking unnecessary medical procedures for her children. Wehby isn't accused of wrongdoing, but could potentially be a witness in the upcoming trial.

Nevertheless, Wehby’s role as a pediatric neurosurgeon continues to be a big part of her campaign.

"Wehby has made good use of her personal story thus far," says Lunch. "I think if Conger had more money, he probably would have made more use of his."

Whoever wins the Republican primary, you can expect Merkley , a first-term Democrat, to vigorously defend his record during the general election. And so far, he has more financial resources to get his message out than either Wehby or Conger.