ST. LOUIS—After hopscotching from Tennessee to Missouri, I find myself in the exact same place: a tight, vicious race that could decide the U.S. Senate. Today, Democrat Claire McCaskill—now in a dead heat with Republican incumbent Jim Talent—is launching her sixth and final driving tour of the state. Just after 7 a.m., I climb aboard the campaign's big blue RV (creatively nicknamed "Big Blue") with the candidate, two staffers, and two other reporters.
McCaskill, who looks kind of like a much taller relative of Madeleine Albright, has a nasty-sounding campaign cough but is otherwise on her game. The former state representative, county prosecutor, and state auditor has a charming manner and a sense of humor that sounds like it's not focus-grouped for the trail. When a staffer suggests that the song "All Night Long" might be a good fit for a final-week mix CD, McCaskill deadpans, "I'm very certain that song has nothing to do with campaigning."
This morning's glad-handing seems designed to buttress support among African-American voters. At the Goody Goody Diner in north St. Louis, McCaskill tells an ally, the Rev. B.T. Rice of New Horizon 7th Day Christian Church, that her "favorite thing on the campaign is to go to black churches. How can you not get lifted up?" Later, McCaskill insists that the African-American vote is "not something I'm fretting about at night. [Black voters] understand Sen. Talent's voting record and they reject it." Still, the most animated she gets all day is when she fields a phone call from Lacy Clay Jr., a congressional representative from St. Louis. Clay, a black Democrat, recently told U.S. News that Sen. Talent is "really trying to address some issues near and dear to the African community. … I don't hear the same drumbeat from the McCaskill camp." Clay is apparently calling to tell McCaskill his side of the story. McCaskill, though she acts a bit cagey in front of the reporters, seems pissed.
When she's actually trying to get into reporters' notebooks, McCaskill talks a lot about the other side's negativity. She blames the GOP's national political directors, particularly Karl Rove, for ads that call her husband a nursing-home profiteer and label her a tax cheat. "This is really not Jim Talent," she says. "I've known this man for 20 years. We served together in Jefferson City. He doesn't believe I'm unethical, he doesn't believe I'm dishonest." McCaskill insists that she doesn't attack Talent or his family, that she only goes after his voting record—like calling him a "rubber stamp" for the president.
At a lunchtime meeting with seniors, McCaskill tailors her message well. She talks about her 78-year-old mother's frustrating experience with Medicare Part D, and explicates how Talent's ties to Big Pharma contributed to the elderly getting a raw deal on prescription drugs. Eventually, she gets back around to Republican meanness. The gist: When the Republicans aren't screwing you on prescriptions, they're conjuring ways to tar and feather me. The Talent people should "just say that Claire is Satan's sister and get it over with," she says impishly. In a lilting voice, she announces that her mom wants to clock Rove if they're ever in the same room together. Everyone titters.
McCaskill gets a lot of mileage out of her victimization by GOP operatives, but she's the one who sponsored the campaign's most notorious attack ad. That's the pro-stem-cell spot in which a dyskinesic Michael J. Fox says McCaskill "shares my hope for cures," while Jim Talent "wanted to criminalize the science that gives us a chance for hope."
Adrianne Marsh, McCaskill's spokeswoman, says it's frustrating that the national media thinks this race is only about Amendment 2, the ballot initiative that would protect the legality of stem-cell research. Missourians care about Iraq and health care and all manner of other things, Marsh says. She might be right, but I'm pretty sure I overheard this snippet of conversation on the street today: "Stem cells. Stem cells, stem cells, stem cells. Stem. Cells. Stem cells, stem cells, stem cells, stem cells, stem cells." People here are still talking about the ad and still debating the ballot proposition. If the national media's obsessed with this stuff, then so is the Show-Me State.
Besides, it's pretty clear that the McCaskill camp is doing its part to keep the conversation going. That makes a lot of sense—the latest St. Louis Post-Dispatch poll shows that 51 percent of voters favor Amendment 2 and only 35 percent oppose it. Today, McCaskill talks about stem cells in a stand-up with CNN, in a cell-phone interview with Fox News, and with the folks at the senior center. She talks about Rush Limbaugh's comments that Michael J. Fox was "acting" in the commercial. ("I hope that Rush Limbaugh is praying about that, because I think he needs to.") And she talks with the seniors about how she respects people who disagree with her on this issue, but that she's on the side of science and hope. Translation: If you don't agree with me on this issue, there's no way in hell I was getting your vote anyway.