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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, no matter what happens in the presidential race, Republicans are widely seen to have a good chance to win the Senate this fall. They need to pick up four seats. One of their opportunities is in the state we go next. Democrat Claire McCaskill faces a tough reelection fight in Missouri.

On Tuesday, Republicans will select their candidate, as NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: It's summertime in an election year in Neosho, Missouri, and that can only mean one thing: the Newton County Republican Party watermelon fest.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So if y'all go over here and get your watermelon and ice water, enjoy that. At 6:30, we'll start right on the dot with the statewide candidates.

NAYLOR: The evening is still hot after a day of triple-digit temperatures here on the edge of the Ozarks, and folks eagerly line up as members of the Republican Women's Club slice pieces of the big melons.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Chop, chop.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Thank goodness there's no slicing and dicing needed, but...

NAYLOR: It will be a crowded Republican ballot in Missouri next Tuesday, with contested races for nearly all statewide offices. The three major Republicans running for the Senate nomination each have three minutes to make their case. There was Congressman Todd Akin, who touted what he called his proven conservative voting record in Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

REPRESENTATIVE TODD AKIN: If you want somebody who is a genuine conservative and has taken the tough votes and paid the price politically for that, then you know that you've got a known quantity as a conservative in Todd Akin.

NAYLOR: Sarah Steelman spoke next. The former state treasurer said she stood out from the other Republican candidates.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SARAH STEELMAN: And I have never been part of the good old boys club, and I never will be. And if you send me to the U.S. Senate, I'm not going to knock politely on that door and sneak in and close that door behind me. No, sir. I'm going to kick that door down, and I'm going to take every one of y'all with me, and we're going to rattle some cages.

NAYLOR: Finally came John Brunner, a businessman making his first try at elective office.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

JOHN BRUNNER: I spent over 33 years in a small manufacturing business. But I know what it's like to be on the receiving end of government regulations, on taxes, on high energy prices, because I'm absolutely convinced we can get this country turned around if we went back to American energy.

NAYLOR: Retiree Ben Lang says he has met and supports Brunner.

BEN LANG: He shares the same values that I have. I'm fearful for the direction the country's going in. And I have two wonderful grandchildren that I'm worried about. And I just don't like what the Senate's been doing for the last three or four years.

NAYLOR: There are few substantive differences on the issues among the three Republicans. All are dyed-in-the-wool conservatives in a state that seems to be all but out of reach for President Obama. Ken Warren is a professor of political science at St. Louis University.

KEN WARREN: They're all very conservative. And the joke around Missouri has been that they're trying to out-conservatize, so to speak, the other ones. They all really support Tea Party issues and trying to essentially equate McCaskill with Obama, because Obama is quite unpopular in the state of Missouri.

NAYLOR: Still, it's been a wild and expensive race, fought largely on the airwaves. Brunner, the businessman, has spent an astonishing amount of his own money - nearly $7 million - on his campaign. Sarah Steelman has the endorsement of Sarah Palin, who cut this classically Palin-esque ad on her behalf.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISEMENT)

SARAH PALIN: Sarah is an economist who defends our tax dollars like a mama grizzly defends her cubs. Sarah Steelman earned her reputation as a conservative maverick.

NAYLOR: And Akin, who has struggled to gain statewide name recognition beyond his base in the St. Louis suburbs, has an ad with his own endorsement from a popular Republican and Fox News commentator, Mike Huckabee.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL ADVERTISEMENT)

MIKE HUCKABEE: A Bible-based Christian, Todd Akin supports traditional marriage, defends the unborn and voted to defund Planned Parenthood.

NAYLOR: Even McCaskill has gotten into the act, running her own ads challenging the Republicans who hope to unseat her in November. Here's one in which she backhandedly compliments and then condemns Akin.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Todd Akin: a crusader against bigger government. Akin would completely eliminate the Departments of Education and Energy and privatize Social Security.

NAYLOR: A recent St. Louis Post-Dispatch poll has Brunner leading Steelman and Akin. The same poll showed all three Republicans defeating McCaskill in the fall, giving even more weight to Tuesday's primary. Brian Naylor, NPR News.

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