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.
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.
"Missouri is actually about five states in one," says the Rev. Emanuel Cleaver, a former Democratic mayor of Kansas City, attending a Carnahan rally in the city's historic 18th and Vine district.
The two major urban centers Kansas City and St. Louis lean Democratic, while Springfield, which is home to the Assemblies of God headquarters, is one of the most conservative spots in the country. The state's agricultural middle tends to vote GOP, as does the "boot heel" to the south, which might as well be part of Tennessee. That leaves the growing suburbs as the primary battleground. These areas used to lean Republican but have been increasingly Democratic: In his unsuccessful 2000 bid for governor, Talent failed to win his own county in suburban St. Louis.
Just how difficult it may be for one candidate to bridge the gap between these different factions becomes clear on Carnahan's recent bus tour, dubbed "Freedom, Faith, and Family." The senator starts her day at a lively rally in Kansas City attended by mostly African-Americans and union workers, where she is compared favorably to Hillary Rodham Clinton. Six hours later, at a small gathering in rural Kirksville, where a home down the street displays a confederate flag, a man presses her to consider a Constitutional amendment protecting the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Carnahan has established one of the more conservative records among Senate Democrats, voting with the president more than two-thirds of the time. She was one of only 12 Democrats to vote in favor of the Bush tax cut, but she also opposed a permanent repeal of the estate tax a move that has angered the state's many farmers.
Talent, a Newt Gingrich protégé who had a solidly conservative voting record in Congress, has won the endorsement of the state farm bureau. But his firm opposition to abortion and gun control may alienate suburban voters, especially women, among whom Carnahan is running ahead.
Indeed, gender may well influence the race's outcome. "I just think there needs to be more women taking care of things," says Clara Ratliff, a Democrat attending a Carnahan rally in Chillicothe. Her daughter-in-law, Ann Ratliff, an independent voter and 5th-grade teacher in St. Louis, shudders that Talent is "too conservative."
The two candidates are well-matched financially: Carnahan has raised close to $8 million, while Talent, aided by two visits from President Bush, has brought in more than $5 million. Surveys show the race is likely to be close. Both campaigns point to internal polls indicating their candidate is ahead, though most independent polls give Carnahan a 6-to-8 point edge.
"It's always close in Missouri," says Missouri Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond (R). "Missouri is a microcosm of the nation."
While the two candidates cut very different figures, and are separated by more than two decades in age, they share an underlying competitive spirit. Talent has been on the ballot in every election since he was 27. Carnahan was clearly a driving force behind her husband's ambition. She laughingly confides that whenever they would drive home in separate cars, it would turn into a race. "We never said anything about it," she says. "It was just a little competition to see who could get home the fastest."