Campaign '06: A Fight for the Heartland in Missouri

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If you want to understand one of this year's most important Senate races, consider the change of venues for Claire McCaskill's victory party. Two years ago, after winning the primary for governor of Missouri, Democrat McCaskill celebrated at the Marriott Hotel in downtown Kansas City. The location was symbolic. For the next three months McCaskill campaigned hard in Kansas City and St. Louis, rarely venturing into the rural areas that Missourians call "outstate."

Her urban strategy failed. McCaskill lost the general election to Republican Matt Blunt, whose slim victory statewide was fueled by huge majorities in rural counties. McCaskill earned her political stripes as a tough-talking prosecutor in Kansas City before becoming state auditor in 1998. Since losing the governor's race in 2004, McCaskill used her position as auditor to keep her name in the news, launching high-profile investigations into state-regulated nursing homes and cost overruns in St. Louis's MetroLink light rail system.

This August, McCaskill proved that she'd learned her lesson. After winning the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, she delivered her victory speech to hundreds of cheering volunteers inside Democratic Party headquarters in Springfield, Missouri's third-largest city, which is deep in the heart of Republican territory and former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft's hometown. When McCaskill campaigns in Springfield, she's often followed by Republican protesters who call her a liberal Hillary Clinton wannabe and taunt her with signs reading "New York's Third Senator."

But the victory party was only the first step in McCaskill's new rural offensive. She ran her first campaign ads on Springfield TV stations. She's visited conservative southwest Missouri 27 times so far, says spokeswoman Adrianne Marsh. By mid-August, McCaskill had campaigned in 47 of the state's 109 rural counties. Of course her opponent, Republican incumbent Jim Talent, is also running hard in rural areas. Which means that one of this year's biggest Senate races will be decided in the smallest places, like Fairdealing, Missouri, population 676.

"Politicians hate to campaign in rural Missouri because it's so sparsely populated," says Ken Warren, who owns a polling company and teaches political science at St. Louis University. "But that's where 50 percent of the state lives. They really have no choice."

That's still a problem for McCaskill, who lives with her husband, a wealthy businessman, in a modernist house near the affluent St. Louis suburb of Ladue. But it also happens to be a problem for Talent, who lives in Chesterfield, another upscale St. Louis suburb. Unlike most country voters, Talent talks fast and enunciates every word. In a room of overall-clad pig farmers, Talent's pressed slacks and Oxford shirts often seem too nice by half.

"Both candidates have that problem of connecting with rural voters," says Jerry Wamser, a lawyer and state Republican Party activist. "Neither of them is exactly down-home folk."

McCaskill will have a difficult time wooing many rural Missourians because of her comparatively liberal stances on cultural issues, which are becoming major issues in the race. Unlike Talent, and the majority of Missourians, McCaskill is pro-choice, supports gun control and has opposed banning gay marriage. The war on terror also features prominently in both candidates' stump speeches. Talent regularly projects Republicans as strong and Democrats as weak on national security, while McCaskill hammers Talent on his support for the Iraq War, which just over half of Missourians opposed in a recent St. Louis Post-Dispatch poll.

Adding to Talent's woes is the fact that he's on the losing side of some big political trends. Talent remains a stalwart Bush supporter even as the President's approval ratings in Missouri hover around 40%. In the biggest statewide issue this fall, Talent opposes a proposed state constitutional amendment to keep stem cell research legal in Missouri, even though the amendment enjoys a 62% approval rating according to the most recent St. Louis Post-Dispatch poll. Still, the latest polls, from late August, found Talent and McCaskill locked in a statistical dead heat, with Talent leading 46% to McCaskill's 44%.

"Talent is running against a headwind," says David Robertson, political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "McCaskill has the wind at her back."

Both candidates expect continued support from their national parties. A July fundraiser with President Bush at the St. Louis Ritz-Carlton Hotel netted Talent $1 million, while McCaskill has hosted former President Bill Clinton and Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid. Talent raised a total of $9.9 million by mid-July, compared to McCaskill's $4.5 million. He used his financial advantage to hire media consultant Scott Howell, who's famous (and infamous) for engineering the Swift Boat campaign against John Kerry in 2004.

"Oh yes, this campaign will get nasty," Warren says. With the race too close to call and so much riding on rural voters, many observers say they're expecting a long, tense election day as votes trickle in from outstate. "Bring your jammies," Wamser says. "It's gonna be a late night."