DODGE CITY, Kansas (AP) — The scrubby rangeland and table-top fields of western Kansas have been a fertile source of wheat, soybeans and sorghum and home to one of the nation's largest cattle herds. The region has also been a steady provider of votes for conservative Midwestern Republicans like Pat Roberts.
But Roberts, a small-town boy who went to Washington, is now struggling to win re-election, and the prairie is both his best chance for saving his Senate career and the biggest reason he could lose it.
In a month, Roberts must wring every friendly vote out of Kansas' 99 rural counties to fend off a challenge by a suburban businessman running as an independent. Greg Orman is capitalizing on sentiment that the incumbent is out of touch.
Roberts grew up in tiny Holton, north of Topeka, in the 1940s and 1950s. For more than three decades, he has listed the famous frontier town of Dodge City, population 28,000, as his hometown. The many farmers, merchants and senior citizens who live in the region's patchwork of small communities know him and are still as solidly Grain Belt conservative as ever, regularly giving 80 percent of their vote to Republicans.
But the rural areas, with declining populations, now account for less than half of Kansas' electorate. More important, some of Roberts' longtime supporters there are skeptical about him. A primary challenger who called out Roberts for his more than four decades in Washington racked up almost half the vote in some farm counties before losing 48 percent to 42 percent.
"It's an uphill fight. I hope it's not too late," said GOP state Rep. John Rubin, who is part of the massive GOP rescue effort launched to keep the seat in Republican hands.
Recent polls have shown Orman with an edge, but about 15 percent of voters are undecided.
The two candidates' campaign strategies are flip-sides of each other, as are the men themselves.
Orman, a youthful 45, tanned and fit, lives in the Kansas City suburb of Olathe, which has doubled in population to more than 130,000 since 1990. He is targeting younger, better educated and less partisan voters who work in the metropolitan areas around Kansas City, Topeka and Wichita. With a Princeton economics degree and a business portfolio worth between $21 million and $85 million, he's stressing disgust with partisan gridlock and a pro-business message that aims to be neither Republican nor Democratic.
Orman's sights are on the state's registered Democrats, who make up 24 percent of the electorate and were left adrift when the Democratic nominee dropped out of the race, as well as the 32 percent independents and disgruntled Republicans who are weary of Roberts.
"Voters across Kansas are sick and tired of the finger-pointing by both parties in Congress," Orman spokesman Sam Edelen said.
Roberts is going rural and old-school. Often wearing a U.S. Marines baseball cap that reminds people of his time in the service from 1958 to 1962, the balding lawmaker talks about farm issues and the threats posed by liberal Democrats. Roberts stressed his steady support for farm programs going back to his time as Agriculture Committee chairman in the House, though he voted against the farm bill this year when facing a tea party primary challenge.
To survive, "He's got to win the rural areas by quite a bit," said Clay Barker, executive director of the Kansas Republican Party.
By last week, about a dozen campaign staffers were scrambling to ramp-up efforts across an area covering 78,000 square miles. But only a few Roberts-for-Senate signs were visible along the 300-mile main route from Topeka to Dodge City.
After a slow start, "We're running a robust campaign," said Corry Bliss, the new campaign manager sent last month by worried Republicans in Washington.
Bliss said hundreds of volunteers are now calling voters in western Kansas. Republican celebrities, such as Bob Dole, Sen. John McCain and Jeb Bush, have dropped in for appearances. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is scheduled for this week, as Roberts starts a statewide bus tour.
But some rural voters noted that Roberts himself was a rare visitor until lately. His GOP primary challenger, Milton Wolf, exploited the fact that Roberts had a house in the Virginia suburbs but only a rented room in Kansas.
"We've been supporters," said retired rancher Floris Jean Hampton, among about 200 people who turned out for a reception with Roberts and Dole in Dodge City. "But we've got questions about where he's been, and we're open to others."
Republican Sherwood Songer said he voted for Wolf in the primary "because we need someone younger" and now is undecided.
"I'm keeping an open mind," Songer said.
GOP strategists say Roberts must also campaign actively in the suburbs to keep Orman's vote totals there down.
It's a tall order, said Bill Lacy, a former Dole aide. "You can't really go in and organize a U.S. Senate campaign overnight. And I think what happened is they got behind the curve."