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Senate Foes in Missouri Offer Stark Contrast

Personalities may be as important as issues in the intense race between incumbent Democrat Carnahan and GOP challenger Talent.

November 03, 2002|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

DES PERES, Mo. — The candidates in one of the nation's tightest Senate races are talking about all the big issues: Social Security, the dragging economy, missile defense, taxes.

But at least here in this key battleground of suburban St. Louis, voters are focused more on personality than on positions.

Andrew Gregory, 29, says he'll vote for incumbent Democrat Jean Carnahan "because she seems like a down-to-earth kind of person," not a polished politician.

"She's like the lady next door," puts in his friend, 28-year-old Kay Reid.

Edward Spillane, 67, backs the challenger, former Rep. Jim Talent -- not on issues, but on the principle that the Republican candidate is "more apt to support the president, and the president needs support" in these uncertain times.

A mid-October survey of likely voters found Talent leading, 47% to 41%. A month earlier, the same polling company, Zogby International, found Carnahan ahead by 8 points. Given the margins of error in both surveys -- and the difficulty determining which voters will actually trek to the polls Tuesday -- most pundits call the race excruciatingly close.

That's no surprise; Missouri is a classic swing state. Republicans and Democrats traditionally run neck and neck in statewide races.

"We're a microcosm of the country as a whole," said David Robertson, a political scientist at the University of Missouri. "We're a reflection of the divisions we see in the United States."

Those divisions, however, are playing out with a twist in this grinding, expensive, sometimes angry Senate race.

Though she is the incumbent, Carnahan is a novice politician. In fact, this is her first campaign. Her husband, Gov. Mel Carnahan, had been running for the Senate when he was killed in a plane crash less than three weeks before the 2000 election.

Under state law, it was too late for the Democrats to select a replacement, so the governor's name remained on the ballot -- and voters elected him posthumously, knowing that his wife had agreed to serve in his place.

The 68-year-old widow continues to draw voter sympathy for the tragedy that put her in the Senate. (She lost not only her husband, but also their oldest son, who was piloting the plane.) The recent death of Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone in a campaign plane crash revived memories of Carnahan's loss; some analysts suggest that can only help the Missouri senator.

But Carnahan's history cuts both ways.

She has been termed the "accidental senator," portrayed as a sweet grandmother who stumbled into office unprepared. Veteran Capitol Hill analyst Charlie Cook, who publishes a nonpartisan newsletter, wrote this year that Carnahan at times seemed "lost" in the Senate -- a criticism he said he heard first from her fellow Democrats.

Missouri Republicans have picked up the theme, with a commercial suggesting that Carnahan doesn't understand the legislative process.

Carnahan rejects such comments as political hatchet jobs; she proudly puts her record up against any second-year senator's. Some outside analysts, too, bristle at what they see as a demeaning stereotype of a woman who is, by all accounts, bright, articulate and politically savvy from three decades of promoting her husband's career.

"When men run for the Senate or for governor without any political experience, hardly a word is spoken because they're men, so they're somehow equipped to govern. But all of a sudden, Jean Carnahan comes in and she's 'the grandma.' Well, how many grandfathers are there in the Senate?" said Karen O'Connor, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University in Washington.

The perception of Carnahan as ill-prepared for national politics might also stem from her vote against John Ashcroft's appointment as U.S. attorney general.

Just a few months earlier, Ashcroft -- who was then Missouri's junior senator -- had conceded after losing his seat to Carnahan's late husband, declining to contest the unusual election. Ashcroft's concession was universally praised as magnanimous. So when Carnahan voted against his appointment, many Missourians were furious.

"I don't have much of an opinion of her," said Doris Werkema, 80, who plans to back Talent. "I didn't think she was very gracious about Ashcroft."

For his part, Talent does not talk much about how his opponent gained her office. Instead, he emphasizes his own experience as a legislator -- eight years in the Missouri House and another eight in the U.S. House.

Talent, 46, built that career on conservative principles -- above all, cutting taxes and shrinking government. He wants to expand President Bush's tax cuts: "I don't think you can balance the budget without cutting taxes," he said.

Talent has opposed a ban on assault weapons and a hike in the minimum wage. He helped write the five-year time limit for welfare recipients -- and unsuccessfully sought to ban cash grants for women who had children out of wedlock.

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