Missouri's very civil war for Senate
Carnahan vs. Talent is among the nation's most competitive and most constrained races, due to the unusual circumstances surrounding it.
Shaking hands and posing for pictures at the governor's ham breakfast, a staple of Missouri politics for more than half a century, Sen. Jean Carnahan (D) gives off the gracious air of a hostess. Although she's in her first run for political office, it's clear this longtime political spouse and former Missouri first lady has attended the gathering at the state fair countless times before, as she works her way down table after table of guests hunched over plates of ham and eggs, biscuits and gravy.Skip to next paragraph
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Nearby, her challenger, former GOP Rep. Jim Talent, stands inconspicuously by the coffee urns, chatting casually with supporters who approach him. No newcomer to this event either, as a former state legislator and four-term congressman, he nevertheless remains rooted at one end of the enormous white tent, ceding most of the space to her.
It's a telling scene, in a race that is simultaneously among the nation's most competitive and most constrained, due to the unusual circumstances surrounding it.
In one of the strangest twists of the 2000 election, Senator Carnahan was appointed to fill the seat won by her husband, Gov. Mel Carnahan (D), who was killed in a plane crash three weeks before the election. Too late to remove his name from the ballot, Governor Carnahan beat incumbent John Ashcroft (R), becoming the first dead man ever elected to the US Senate.
Now, with Republicans targeting Democratic incumbents in Minnesota, South Dakota, and Iowa, control of the US Senate may be decided in the Midwest and Carnahan's seat, located in the classic Midwestern swing state of Missouri, lies at the epicenter of the battle. Analysts see the race as a bellwether, both because of where it is and because it resembles an open-seat contest, since Carnahan hasn't been on the ballot before. Consequently, it will offer a glimpse of where the two parties stand almost two years into the Bush presidency and one year after 9/11.
Yet despite the high stakes, it's also likely to remain an unusually civil campaign, with the tragedy of Mel Carnahan's death still reverberating among many voters.
"Let's put it this way: Even the most hard-bitten consultant is not going to lean on me to go negative," says Mr. Talent, who narrowly lost a 2000 bid for governor, in a race many Republicans believe was indirectly affected by the Carnahan tragedy.
TALENT has been emphasizing his longer record and experience. But at events like the ham breakfast, Carnahan comes across as the more comfortable retail campaigner, having spent more than 40 years on the trail with her husband.
Although Carnahan knows she can't simply run on her husband's legacy "I have got to make my own record," she says firmly her supporters almost invariably mention him when explaining why they plan to vote for her. Yet this, too, may work both ways. As the state's budget woes have mounted, some voters are beginning to place part of the blame on the former governor.
"Part of what's wrong with the budget in Missouri is Mel Carnahan," says Betty Riekhof, a farmer from Lafayette County, who is doling out salad at the Beef House, an eating pavilion at the state fair.
Missouri has grown accustomed to close elections, being almost evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, at about 40 percent each, with independent voters comprising the remaining 20 percent of the electorate. Culturally, the state has one of the most diverse populations in the country.