GOP doctor appeals on social issues in Oregon race

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Looking to leave behind her highly specialized medical career for a seat in the U.S. Senate, pediatric neurosurgeon Monica Wehby burst onto the political scene with a splash last year.

Now that voters are paying closer attention, the Oregon Republican is fighting to keep her campaign afloat.

Wehby raised a mountain of cash and the hopes of Republicans who thought she just might be the kind of candidate to win a Senate seat in a Democratic state. Then scandal hit.

Days before the May primary, old police reports surfaced showing that an ex-husband and a former boyfriend separately called police to report Wehby was harassing them.

And this week, after painstakingly working to climb back to relevance, her campaign was threatened again by reports that her health care plan matched a Republican group's recommended talking points, in some places verbatim.

Politicians routinely borrow ideas from each other and speak from similar talking points, but the plagiarism allegations played right into the hands of Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley.

He's fought relentlessly to pierce Wehby's image as a moderate and to tie her to the national Republican Party.

The billionaire Koch brothers, conservative businessmen who are favorite targets of the left, are major backers of a nonprofit group spending millions on television ads targeting Merkley.

But the group, Freedom Partners, has canceled advertising slots reserved for October and will go dark at the end of the month. Super PACs that backed Wehby in her primary have stayed on the sidelines.

Wehby, a divorced mother of four teenagers making her first run for office, has pressed ahead, determined to position herself as "an independent voice."

It's an appeal to an important Oregon sensibility — a fierce pride in being different — and a sprint away from socially conservative positions that have helped turn the state's voters against Republicans.

It's been more than a decade since a Republican won a statewide race here.

Wehby has styled herself as a moderate on abortion and gay marriage, earning national attention for promoting the support of two of the plaintiffs who sued Oregon and eventually won the right to same-sex marriage.

"They have a right to be just as miserable as the rest of us, don't you think?" Wehby said with a laugh in an interview this week. She insisted she can't remember ever opposing gay marriage.

Wehby said she's personally opposed to abortion but believes the federal government should stay out of it. She does support a ban on a procedure critics label partial birth abortion, which was generally performed during the second trimester of pregnancy and was outlawed in a 2003 federal law.

Democrats and their interest groups question her commitment to the cause. They worry she'd support conservative judges who would curtail abortion rights and accuse her of being a newcomer to the gay-rights cause.

The other six plaintiffs in the gay marriage lawsuits all publicly back Merkley.

On economic issues, she sticks closer to Republican tenets. She has slammed Merkley for federal spending and growth in the national debt since he was elected in 2008.

"He believes that big government with massive overregulation and overreach is the answer," she said.

The centerpiece of her campaign has been her successful medical career. She talks often about the need for a doctor's approach to legislating, enlisting the parents of her patients as surrogates to testify to her compassion and skill.

Wehby, 52, was born in Nashville to an accountant and a nurse. She went to Catholic schools and earned her undergraduate degree from Notre Dame before beginning medical training that took her to Texas, California and Utah.

As a child, she said, she wanted to be a ballerina, a nun or a doctor, settling on the latter to the delight of her father and grandfather, an immigrant from Lebanon.

In medical school, she planned to be a plastic surgeon until she got to know neurosurgeons and realized it was an attainable specialty.

A southern accent is still prominent in her speech, and she charms those she's talking to with titles like "honey" and "my dear."

Polls have showed Merkley with a healthy lead, and Wehby acknowledged she's the underdog. But she's convinced Oregon voters will decide they want a change in Congress.

"I think our message is really resonating about the direction of the country," she said.

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