Cover Story

Highway hopefuls

"Highway hopefuls" Continued...

Issue: "Highway 65 hopefuls," April 20, 2002

The major issue around here? "Hog farming," Mrs. Butler answers without a moment's hesitation. Specifically, the locals are up in arms about giant commercial hog farms that produce tons of solid waste, which stinks up the air for miles around, might seep into the water supply, and certainly drives down property values.

As a small hog farmer himself, Mr. Salier could easily tap into this frustration, except that regulating the big commercial farms might conflict with his pro-business instincts. So, until convinced otherwise, Mrs. Butler plans to vote for Mr. Ganske. And what about the incumbent, Tom Harkin? "He's all talk," she replies. "He promises a lot, but he never really does anything."

The general opinion about Mr. Harkin tends to be different around Des Moines, the state's largest city. Just outside town, the grandly named Adventureland Resort-really just a small collection of aging roller coasters-sits at the intersection of Highway 65 and I-80. Next door is the red-roofed Prairie Downs Racetrack and Casino. Two men headed into the casino talk about conditions at "the plant," but they won't give their names. (It's 3:30 on a Monday; maybe they've left work early.)

They both think Mr. Harkin is doing a fine job. They list education, health care, and pension benefits as their main concerns, and they want the federal government more involved in all three. Would they consider voting for Mr. Ganske, who tends to support big-government solutions like a patients' bill of rights and campaign-finance reform? "Why would we support a semi-Democrat when we've already got the real thing?" laughs one.

Missouri has major cities on both its eastern and western flanks, but Highway 65 misses them both by a long shot. The small towns along its route seem distinctively and surprisingly Southern, from the twang in the vowels to the tunes on the radio. Crossing the state line into north-central Missouri, my car stereo picks up a dozen country music stations, and Alan Jackson's ode to 9/11 seems to be in constant play somewhere on the dial.

In an odd way, that could spell trouble for the Democrats here. Their standard-bearer, freshman Sen. Jean Carnahan, has never actually faced the voters. Her husband, Mel, the state's popular governor, was locked in a bitter campaign with then-Sen. John Ashcroft when his small plane went down in a thunderstorm, less than a month before the election. Missouri's shocked voters elected him anyway, but only after Mrs. Carnahan agreed to serve in his stead.

When she got to Washington, one of her first duties was to vote on Mr. Ashcroft's nomination for attorney general. She voted no. That struck many Missourians as petty, especially after Mr. Ashcroft had graciously conceded the race rather than mount a legal challenge to the constitutionality of electing a dead man. Then came Sept. 11, and Mr. Ashcroft became perhaps the highest-profile attorney general in history. Suddenly, Mrs. Carnahan's "no" vote seemed not only petty, but vaguely unpatriotic.

Pat Greeley, a waitress at the Country Kitchen restaurant in Chillicothe, says she voted for Mr(s). Carnahan largely out of sympathy. But now her sympathies are shifting. "He was always a good senator," she confides during a slow breakfast shift. "It's not like people around here were voting against him. It was more like sending a sympathy card to the governor's wife, you know?"

But if Mr. Ashcroft was popular as a senator, he's downright heroic as attorney general. "I'm so proud of the way he's defending us," Ms. Greeley says. "We all feel like we're in good hands with him and President Bush in Washington." She pauses and shakes her head. "So then you start to wonder: What if Jean Carnahan had her way? He wouldn't even be there right now. Makes you wonder about her judgment, you know?"

Up and down the state, the names of John Ashcroft and Jean Carnahan are paired that way, as if 2002 were a rematch of the 2000 race. Actually, though, the likely Republican nominee is Jim Talent, a conservative former congressman who narrowly lost a gubernatorial bid after sympathy for Mr. Carnahan spilled over into his race two years ago.

Mr. Talent is an able campaigner with enthusiastic support from the Bush White House, but running against Mrs. Carnahan won't be easy. "How do you campaign against a widow?" wonders Bill Thomas as he loads fishing gear into the trunk of his car. Like many other voters in Springfield, he calls himself "conservative and proud of it." Springfield, after all, was Mr. Ashcroft's political base, and the Assemblies of God denomination is headquartered in this southern Missouri city.

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