Democrats' Senate Hopes May Hinge on Missouri

If Democrats are going to get close to winning control of the Senate this November, they'll need to go beyond the three targets (Santorum, Burns, Chafee) everyone talks about. Political analysts say Missouri might be a swing state this year; first-term Republican Jim Talent looks strong but not unassailable.

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Now an early look at what will likely be a key race in the fight for control of the U.S. Senate. In Missouri, Republican incumbent Jim Talent is facing a strong challenge from Claire McCaskill, the state's auditor. And while Talent says November is a long way off, McCaskill is already in full campaign mode.

NPR's Brian Naylor went out on the road and has this report.

(Soundbite of car on highway)

BRIAN NAYLOR reporting:

I'm driving along U.S. Route 50 in West Central Missouri. I'm following a big, blue RV. Claire McCaskill for our families, is painted on the back. McCaskill is riding from small town to small town, holding forums on Medicare Part D, the prescription drug benefit program. She thinks it's an issue that will be important come November.

Ms. CLAIRE MCCASKILL, (Missouri Auditor, Running for U.S. Senate): Hello, Good afternoon everybody.

NAYLOR: On this day, the RV stops at the Sedalia Senior Center, where McCaskill stands behind a table full of tempting deserts. The room is full of people, mostly seniors, mostly white. They ask her questions about how to enroll in the complex program, nervous about the approaching deadline, and listen, sometimes nodding in agreement, as she critiques it.

Ms. MCCASKILL: This May 15th deadline is completely arbitrary. Why wouldn't we extend it? Clearly, it's confusing. It's hard. Seniors are scared, they're frustrated, they're afraid to throw the dart and pick the plan.

NAYLOR: Healthcare is clearly on the minds of Missouri voters. President Bush held a town meeting in Jefferson City about the prescription drug program. Myrna Reger (ph), a Sedalia resident, says it's her top issue.

Ms. MYRNA REGER (Sedalia Resident): Very definitely healthcare. Even for the younger generations, they can't afford it anymore. They're dropping their insurance. People with children, they don't have the insurance that they had before. I remember when I had good insurance and suddenly it just went by the wayside.

NAYLOR: But there are other issues of concern as well. For Warrensburg resident Ann Berry, it's illegal immigration.

Ms. ANN BERRY (Warrensburg Resident): Well, I don't think we can afford, the Americans can afford to support them. They don't pay the taxes, they don't help pay our bills, but they make the money. And I know some of the farmers need them, don't get me wrong. But I think that they have to do it the right way coming in to work. And I think they ought to pay taxes.

NAYLOR: But there is another issue that McCaskill has been focusing on, stem cell research. A measure that would guarantee that any federally approved stem cell research could occur in Missouri is expected to be on the fall ballot. McCaskill supports the measure. Senator Talent has not announced a position. The issue and Talent's lack of a response have fired up McCaskill and the Democrats.

At a fundraiser on a supporter's back porch in Sedalia, McCaskill invokes the spirit of the patron's saint of democratic politics in Missouri.

Ms. MCCASKILL: I mean to tell you, if Harry Truman was here tonight and we were talking to him and we said, there's a guy sitting in your seat who won't tell Missourians where he stands on stem cell research. Now can you imagine what Harry Truman would say?

NAYLOR: The stem cell issue has deeply divided the state's Republicans. Some conservatives are threatening to withhold support of Talent unless he announces his opposition. In an interview, Talent says he still hasn't made up his mind.

Senator JIM TALENT (Republican, Missouri): I'm going to wait. I'm going to see if it gets on the ballot. And looking like it will, I'm continuing to visit with people around Missouri about my position. I want them to understand where I'm coming from and then I'm going to make a judgment about the ballot issue.

NAYLOR: Talent has kept a relatively low profile in Washington, a reliable conservative vote on taxes and social issues. He says most Missourians haven't even begun to focus on the fall campaign and he appears unconcerned by polls that show most voters nationwide would prefer Democrats in charge of Congress.

Senator TALENT: What I think is that people in general are looking at what's going on in Washington and they're saying, you know, we're not sure that they're listening. We don't really know what they're doing there. I don't know that that's focused but so much on one party or the other.

NAYLOR: As an incumbent, though, does it put you in greater danger if people, you think, have a low opinion of Congress?

Senator TALENT: Well not so much for me because I always -- I am an agent of change and I always run -- I mean, I'm -- there are always things that I want to do to make that system work better for people.

NAYLOR: Talent cites his work on a bill curbing production of methamphetamine. He say's people are concerned about rising fuel costs and that, in his words, they want the war in Iraq won and over with. If Talent himself has yet to engage McCaskill, his surrogates have shown no such reluctance.

(Soundbite of pounding)

NAYLOR: A group of about a dozen young Republicans trailed McCaskill on the campaign trail banging telephones together, one person actually dressed as a life-sized telephone, to illustrate what they say is her opposition to giving the president authority to listen in on terrorist phone calls. McCaskill says that's not so. She supports capturing terrorists, but only if it's done within the framework of the law.

Talent goes into his reelection campaign with a big financial advantage. He has nearly $6 million on hand to McCaskill's nearly $2 million. But McCaskill raised almost as much as Talent in the first three months of the year. Both first lady Laura Bush and Vice President Cheney have appeared at fundraisers for Talent this month, a sign Republicans are, at the very least, not taking the race for granted.

Brian Naylor, NPR News.

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