Campaign '06: Courting Missouri's Moms

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Sen. Jim Talent really wants to draw attention to the risk of breast cancer. When the U.S. Park Service told him in 2004 that he couldn't illuminate St. Louis's famous Gateway Arch with pink floodlights to highlight breast cancer awareness month because the rangers feared it would create a precedent for other national monuments, Talent passed a Senate bill authorizing him to do so. Earlier this month, Laura Bush flew in from Washington to flip the switch on the pink lights. Talent told onlookers, "Soon we will be able to find a cure to this life-threatening disease that affects nearly two million women in the United States."

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Talent's breast cancer awareness effort is personal and heartfelt: his mother died of the disease in 1988. But like everything a candidate does in campaign season, the pink arch event was also high-wattage politics — part of a massive push by the first-term incumbent Senator to woo nearly two million other women: those registered to vote in Missouri. Talent did an Arbor Day event and a $300,000 fundraiser with the First Lady the same day. He has a dedicated campaign arm called "Women for Talent" that has held nine events since July. His top pollster, Linda DiVall, is an expert in reading the interests of women voters, and his TV ads in the final weeks ahead of the Nov. 7 election are concentrating on issues that strongly resonate with women: nursing home safety, health care and fighting methamphetamine abuse.

Why all the feminine focus? Talent won his first race for the Senate in 2002 by a mere 20,000 votes, in part by appealing to women. This time, he said at a Women for Talent event with North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole last week, "we're doing it all bigger." A total of 217,000 more women than men voted in Missouri in 2004. Women there, as around the country, are typically less party-loyal than men, decide later how they will vote and are more affected by late-campaign negative advertising. Most important, his Democratic opponent, the popular State Auditor Claire McCaskill, is pursing them aggressively. "The issues we're talking about in this campaign resonate particularly with women," like health care and day care costs, she said a few hours before the campaign's final debate last Wednesday in Kansas City. Polls show the race in a dead heat.

How women vote Nov. 7 is not just Talent's problem: control of the Senate may depend on it. To take back the Senate> in 2007, Democrats probably need to win two out of three races in the red state redoubts of Missouri, Tennessee and Virginia. "In those Senate races the Democrats are going to lose the men," says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. "The question is will they win enough of the women to make up for it." Strategists in bo> th parties are parsing female demographics for advantage. Democratic strategists working in the Virginia and Tennessee races say married women are a key target group in both states, as they comprise a large number of the undecided votes there. A top GOP strategist says of the three crucial states: "Older white women who were raised Democrats and who are culturally more conservative and economically more populist obviously are very critical in every one of those races."

In Missouri, the issue of the moment is stem cell research, which women have come to support by a large margin over the last four years, according to the Pew Center for the Public and the Press. McCaskill aired a powerful ad during the first games of the World Series in which Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson's and is visibly suffering from the symptoms, urged voters to support her. Rush Limbaugh initially accused Fox of skipping his medication or acting, and Talent's backers scrambled to put up a response ad (to air during Wednesday evening's Game Four of the World Series) that features current and former local pro athletes Kurt Warner, Mike Sweeney and Cardinals pitcher Jeff Suppan, along with Patricia Heaton of Everyone Loves Raymond and Passion of the Christ star Jim Caviezel. Early this year Talent abandoned his sponsorship of a tough anti-stem cell bill, but he still opposes a Missouri ballot initiative that would fund research.

The mess in Iraq and Bush's low approval ratings make this a tough year for Republicans to appeal to female swing voters. Seven in ten women oppose the war, compared with 58% opposition among men, according to a recent CNN poll. Bush himself appears to be spreading the gender gap, especially among moderate Republican women. According to a Pew poll conducted last summer, only half of self-described moderate or liberal Republican women approve of Bush's job performance, down 31 percentage points since his re-election. Moderate and liberal Republican men are down only 19 points over this same period, to 62%. McCaskill is running a new ad attacking Talent as a right wing ally of Bush who votes with him 94% of the time.

Talent's most effective effort so far has been with an ad accusing McCaskill of failing to crack down on abusive nursing homes as she promised to in her campaign for state auditor. "This whole thing they've done about nursing homes particularly targets women because they feel guilt over putting parents in health care," McCaskill said last week. "Those ads are particularly damaging." She has worked up a counterstriking ad that features her mother, a former politician herself, talking about her father's death in a nursing home, but at the end of last week McCaskill was still deciding whether or not to run it.

Talent has also made effective use of opposition research on McCaskill. During two debates last week he accused her and her husband, the owner of some 150 different businesses, of not paying their taxes. Negative campaigning works better on women voters than men, says pollster Celinda Lake, and late-day tactics may be crucial for Talent's hope of wooing women, because the environment is so hostile for Republicans. Shelly Bloomfield, 47, is an executive with a specialty pharmacy and the mother of two, who voted for George H. W. Bush. She says she's pretty much decided for McCaskill. "I think Talent has some good ideas and I like that he really researches things and doesn't go with the flow. But Talent's on Bush's side and he pretty much follows Bush for the most part." How women like Bloomfield break in the last two weeks of the campaign will make all the difference: The Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll found McCaskill leading Talent by just one point among likely women voters — with fully 9% remain> ing undecided.