Robyn Beck / AFP/Getty Images (k6xwgqnc20120803212547/600 )
CLEVELAND, Mo. – Sarah Palin has made Missouri U.S. Senate candidate Sarah Steelman the latest member of her surprisingly successful "mama grizzly" pack, appearing at a Friday night campaign event at a berry farm here in the drought-bleached countryside about an hour's drive south of Kansas City.
"These days, many in a lot of GOP primaries, they're running on that platform [of strong conservatism] ... they want you to believe that they perhaps have a record of conservative values, conservative effort," Palin, wearing a blue Superman T-shirt from the Steelman campaign, told a crowd of a couple of hundred in mid-90s heat. "But we have a candidate that actually has that solid, impeccable record."
The former Alaska governor swooped into the Missouri campaign less than a week before Republican voters decide on their best bet to unseat Sen. Claire McCaskill, an iconoclastic Democrat seeking reelection whose seat is seen as a key to Republican efforts to take back the Senate.
Thus far the three GOP front-runners have struggled to distinguish themselves from one another; all have run as strong conservatives.
"I can't tell you how many people have called me to ask who to vote for because they don't know that much about the candidates," said Bill Lant, a Republican state representative for southwestern Missouri.
Steelman is a former state treasurer and senator with statewide experience; Todd Akin is a U.S. representative with a federal track record; and John Brunner, narrowly considered the front-runner, is a successful manufacturing executive.
Each offers appealing conservative credentials, so when all the candidates also swear to repeal "Obamacare" and slash federal spending, a rousing endorsement from a consummate antiestablishment Republican helps set Steelman apart.
"Sarah Palin I doubt would give her endorsement lightly," said state Rep. Diane Franklin. "People have that same sense Palin will carry over for the Steelman race; they like what Sarah Palin offered to that [McCain presidential] ticket, and they see the same from Sarah Steelman."
Palin praised Steelman's work on ethics as a state treasurer, comparing Steelman's record to hers in Alaska. But she offered few insights into why she selected Steelman over the other candidates in the race. Palin's endorsements have come so sparingly this year, yet with a high rate of success.
Her picks haven't been predictable. One man she endorsed, Ted Cruz, defeated an establishment candidate in the Texas U.S. Senate race; yet another, Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, is a six-term incumbent.
In an interview, Steelman said she hadn't met Palin before Friday evening, having requested the former governor's endorsement in a letter.
The endorsement "really helps because it confirms my conservative credentials," Steelman said, adding later, "I'm proud to be compared to her and I'm proud to be endorsed by her."
Palin spoke glowingly of the Senate hopeful onstage, at one point turning from her handwritten notes on a few pages of yellow legal pad to beam at Steelman.
"That's a hot mama grizzly you guys have!" Palin said, grinning. "Whew! She's gonna be a nice face there in that Senate."