Senator answers competence question

October 28, 2002|By Jules Witcover

ST. LOUIS -- Ever since Democratic Sen. Jean Carnahan took office under unusual and sad circumstances nearly two years ago, Republicans have been raising one question above all others: whether she is competent to fill the shoes of her husband, Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan, who was elected to the Senate after he had died in a plane crash.

That question was at the fore the other night as she faced the Republican nominee, former Rep. Jim Talent, in the first televised debate in their fight to win the remaining four years in Mr. Carnahan's term. It was her first such test since her appointment to the Senate by Democratic Gov. Bob Holden, and it came against a formidable debating veteran of four House races and a (losing) gubernatorial race in 2000.

She was nervous at first and stumbled over words a few times compared with the smooth and articulate Mr. Talent. But she also demonstrated a firm grasp of the issues and a mildly combative stance veneered by an easy, grandmotherly style.

In the judgment of political analyst and pollster Kenneth Warren of St. Louis University, Senator Carnahan effectively answered the critical question of competence in a race that is coming down to the wire. Mr. Talent, Mr. Warren noted, acquitted himself well, being careful not to be too critical of a woman who became senator under such trying circumstances, yet not being patronizing, either. But it was Ms. Carnahan who had something to prove, and she proved it.

"This was a 68-year-old woman who had never done this before," Mr. Warren said. "The question was, can she stand up under fire? I think she did."

Mr. Talent may have looked slick by comparison, he acknowledged, "but he didn't look obnoxious, like Gore." The reference was to 2000 presidential nominee Al Gore's eye-rolling and sighs in his debate with George W. Bush -- much criticized afterward.

Nevertheless, Mr. Warren suggested, because expectations were low for Ms. Carnahan as a newcomer to public office and a neophyte in debating, she likely benefited more from the televised debate than did Mr. Talent. Mr. Warren noted how Mr. Bush in 2000 had pointedly noted Mr. Gore's reputation as a superior debater in lowering expectations about himself, and then exceeded them in many viewers' minds. The same phenomenon worked to the advantage of John Kennedy in 1960 in his first debate with Richard Nixon, then a globe-trotting vice president.

Before the one-hour Carnahan-Talent debate, a poll of Missouri voters by John Zogby for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch underscored the importance of the confidence factor to the election chances of the appointed Ms. Carnahan. When asked specifically whether she "deserves to be elected" to serve out the term to which her late husband was elected, only 40 percent said yes, to 52 percent who said someone new should serve. The same poll had Mr. Talent ahead, 47-41.

The first senatorial debate here was marked by the usual exchanges heard elsewhere this year -- the Democrat accusing her opponent of wanting to "privatize" Social Security, the Republican casting his rival as weak on defense.

In fact, Mr. Talent, who was a strong conservative ally of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, co-sponsored legislation in 1993 that would have required employers to put about a third of employees' Social Security taxes into personal investment accounts. In the debate, however, he insisted he would never privatize Social Security, leading Ms. Carnahan to accuse him of "Washington-speak." She in turn pointed to her votes this year for missile defense spending to counter his allegation of her being weak on defense.

As in many other states this fall, the Democratic nominee noted her support of President Bush's Iraq war resolution, but Mr. Talent is counting on a heavy pro-Bush vote for himself. The president has made four stops in Missouri in support of Mr. Talent and other Republican candidates in a state he carried in 2000. Lloyd Smith, Mr. Talent's campaign manager, says strong feelings on national defense at this time should turn out a heavy GOP vote on Election Day.

In the end, the Missouri outcome may rest on whether voters here, mostly concerned about national security, cast their ballots with support of President Bush in mind or vote their domestic concerns. Mr. Warren points out that Ms. Carnahan, as a Democrat who has voted with Republicans more often than Mr. Talent has voted with Democrats, has a more centrist appeal.

In a close election, provisional balloting permitted here could mean the result might not be known for days afterward, making Missouri a key state to watch in the fight for Senate control.

Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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