Candidates run a Missouri marathon

National parties focus on race, crucial to control of the Senate

The Nation Votes 2006

November 05, 2006|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN REPORTER

Columbia, Mo. -- It's twilight outside the Republican headquarters housed in a strip mall here, and Sen. Jim Talent, his navy blazer slightly rumpled from a day of campaigning, is trying to sound optimistic.

"If we finish this race strong, you are going to re-elect yourself a United States senator!" he tells a roomful of supporters, raising his voice slightly for emphasis but keeping his hands sedately in the pockets of his tan chinos.

If Talent looks and sounds doubtful, he has good reason.

Mere days from the balloting, the first-term senator is one of his party's most vulnerable incumbents in a year viewed as a prime opportunity for Democrats to take a chamber of Congress. Both parties consider Missouri a key to deciding who will control the Senate.

Ken Mehlman, the national GOP chairman, says everything is riding on Talent this year. "There's nothing more important to me" than Talent's re-election, he tells the supporters in Columbia.

National Republicans and Democrats are pouring money into this state in the closing days of the campaign, contributing to the wall-to-wall TV and radio advertising -- much of it negative -- that many voters say has their heads spinning.

Both Talent and his Democratic opponent, Claire McCaskill, the state auditor, are toiling to boost turnout among their bases -- rural conservatives for Talent, urban voters in the Kansas City and St. Louis areas for McCaskill -- knowing that in a race this tight, everything comes down to who shows up on Election Day.

"It's absolutely, positively a dead heat -- couldn't be more even," said Kenneth F. Warren, a pollster and political scientist at St. Louis University. "Missouri reflects the national political climate very well, and this time it could tip the balance."

Talent, a bespectacled 50-year-old who looks much younger, could do without those burdens.

"It's a very mixed blessing," says Talent, who plays up his work on local issues -- promoting corn-based ethanol, combating methamphetamine -- as he campaigns around the state. "I'm a Missouri senator. I'd rather just be a Missouri race rather than a national one. The national attention makes it so much more intense."

That's just fine with McCaskill, who, like many candidates in her party this year, enthusiastically highlights the national stakes of the contest as she tries to capitalize on President Bush's low popularity and the public's broader disillusionment.

"It's not about the Democrats and the Republicans, and it's not about me; it's really about you," McCaskill, 53, tells seniors at a retirement community outside Kansas City. "Whether or not this is going to happen is really about change, and whether people are satisfied with the way things are going."

Talent's "close alliance with the administration is really where he's vulnerable," she tells reporters outside the Peachtree Restaurant, a Southern-style buffet spot, before going in to mingle with the mostly African-American clientele.

For two candidates with such opposing viewpoints -- Talent supports Bush's tax cuts and backs him on the war while McCaskill says she would scrap tax cuts for the richest and demand better oversight in Iraq -- they are facing remarkably common challenges in the last days of the race.

Both are concerned that their core supporters may not turn out to vote, and their parties are pulling out all the stops to whip up enthusiasm. Bush campaigned Friday with Talent in southwestern Missouri, and Democratic buzz-magnet Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois will do so for McCaskill in St. Louis this afternoon.

There's "a little bit of a headwind," Talent said with a shrug. "A midterm-election kind of a headwind."

Democratic Rep. Emmanuel Cleaver II, who is working to mobilize the African-American community in Kansas City for McCaskill, said he is worried that her backers, fed up with the entire political system, are not motivated this year.

"We run into a lot of people who say, `You know, it's not going to matter,' and they have been turned off by Washington to the point where it feels almost as good to stay home as it does to get out and vote," Cleaver said.

William Samuels, a Columbia lawyer and staunch Republican, said he hoped the senator and his party could "squeak through" the elections, but had his doubts.

"It's a real danger Republicans won't vote, because their own president let them down on so many things," Samuels said.

Samuels said he'll vote for Talent but worries that he hasn't given conservatives enough reasons to turn out.

"If he loses, it will be because he's not talking enough about immigration," Samuels said. "Right now, it's one of the only winning issues Republicans have."

Each candidate is also trying to make inroads among the other's traditional constituencies.

"McCaskill's trying to erode Talent's base, and Talent's trying to erode McCaskill's base," pollster Warren said.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.