George Will

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- If you seek this year's emblematic election, look at Missouri. In this bellwether state, which has voted with the winner in 25 of the last 26 presidential elections, the U.S. Senate contest between incumbent Republican Jim Talent and state auditor Claire McCaskill encompasses today's political controversies.

Talent, 49, lost a race for governor in 2000 by 21,445 votes, and won two-thirds of a Senate term in 2002 by 21,254 (defeating Sen. Jean Carnahan, who was appointed to the Senate in 2000 when her husband Mel was elected 22 days after dying in a plane crash). So he is running statewide for the third time in six years. In 2002, President Bush made five trips to Missouri on his behalf. This year, Talent, like most Republican candidates, is stressing his independence, but Bush is coming Sept. 8 for a third visit anyway.

McCaskill, 53, in 2004 defeated an incumbent governor in the Democratic primary, then lost the governorship race by 80,977 votes out of 2.7 million cast. Talent believes McCaskill is having trouble raising campaign money in Missouri because ``governors have friends.'' Perhaps. Talent has moved into a small lead in recent polls.

She will carry the St. Louis and Kansas City metropolitan areas, which cast 57 percent of Missouri's votes. To win, however, she must prevent huge Talent majorities in what she calls ``Ashcroftland'' -- rural and very religious areas, especially southwest Missouri, which sent John Ashcroft to the Senate to replace Republican Jack Danforth when he retired in 1994 after three terms.

McCaskill is imprudently forthright. One advantage of not being the incumbent is that she has not had to cast Senate votes on contentious matters. She takes positions anyway:

She says Missourians are angry about gas prices, but she opposes drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and on the outer continental shelf. She opposed last year's energy bill -- a measure supported, Talent notes, by every Midwestern senator because of provisions promoting the use of agricultural commodities in ethanol and other fuels. She opposed estate tax reform, which Talent says is important to Missouri's farmers and small-business people. When Howard Dean campaigned for her, before Justice Sam Alito had been confirmed, the Democratic National Committee chairman said her election would mean ``one less vote for Judge Alito.'' First, she said Dean did not speak for her. Then she came out against Alito.

George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
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