ST. LOUIS - Roberto's Italian restaurant usually sleeps in Saturdays after serving the Friday night crowd in South St. Louis County. But Saturday morning, Oct. 7, it opened up for about 25 anxious college students and suburbanites, few of whom dared approach a small buffet of coffee and donuts before the guest of honor arrived.
The group of Missouri Republicans planned to spend the morning campaigning for incumbent Sen. Jim Talent. But first they wanted to meet the senator, who stopped by to endorse their efforts before heading out for some door-to-door canvassing himself.
"I'm an old grassroots politician," said Talent, standing before supporters who formed a "U" around the edges of the small bar room of the restaurant. He ended his short speech by addressing the question on everyone's minds: Could the senator pull out of the dead heat he's in with Democratic challenger Claire McCaskill? "The race right now is very close," he said. "I feel good about where we are. I think this is going to break for us."
Four years ago, Talent broke the Democrats' hold on the Senate with a landmark victory over Missouri Democrat Jean Carnahan. Now, another state Democratic icon is fighting to regain not just Talent's Senate seat but the party's control in Congress. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has fought back with more than $2.3 million in anti-McCaskill advertising to defeat the longtime politician, now state auditor.
Despite the big money of the NRSC and Talent's own expenditures, which tripled the amount his opponent had raised as of July, the latest polls show Talent falling behind by an inch. To get a break in the race, Talent might need a twist of circumstances like the bizarre string of events that got him to the Senate in the first place.
The balance of political power in Missouri teeters back and forth under the nearly equal weights of Democratic influence in St. Louis and Kansas City and Republican rule in the rest of the state. The state has blushed red in recent years, but Democrats still can swing big elections in their favor, as they did in 2000.
At that time, Talent held one of St. Louis County's seats in Congress, but he gave up his seat to run for the governor's office held by Democrat Mel Carnahan. Carnahan, running for the Senate against incumbent Sen. John Ashcroft, died three weeks before the election when a small plane piloted by his son crashed into a forest southeast of St. Louis.
Missouri Democrats rallied around Carnahan's wife, Jean, who agreed to take his place. Mel Carnahan's name remained on the ballot, while Democrats around the state displayed bumper stickers and yard signs that read "I'm still with Mel." George W. Bush carried Missouri, but Democrats defeated Ashcroft and Talent.
Bush soon nominated Ashcroft for U.S. attorney general. Two years later, Talent took on Jean Carnahan in a special election, won back the Senate seat Ashcroft lost, and restored the Republican majority in the Senate.
Now, McCaskill is putting both Talent and the GOP Senate majority on the defensive. A former prosecutor, McCaskill is known for launching bold criticism at anyone who disagrees with her. "George Bush let people die on rooftops in New Orleans because they were poor and they were black," McCaskill told a group of St. Louis city elected Democratic officials in September. She later admitted in an Oct. 8 debate with Talent on Meet the Press: "I probably should have said it another way."
Spicing up the Missouri political soup is a state ballot initiative to prop up embryonic stem-cell research. The controversial research, which involves cloning human embryos and destroying them to extract their stem cells, has become the most talked-about issue of the election. McCaskill has used the initiative, known as Amendment 2, to galvanize her anti-Bush rhetoric with sympathy for the ill and dying. The issue has made Talent a target for accusations of flip-flopping and heartlessness.
Talent is pro-life and voted against the embryonic stem-cell research funding bill that Bush vetoed this past summer. He does not support the Missouri ballot initiative, which would amend the state constitution to prevent any future bans or restrictions on the research.
Last February, however, he withdrew his support from a bill that would have criminalized all forms of human cloning. His position makes sense scientifically, if not politically, Talent said. After reading journal articles and talking to experts on the subject, he came to believe that scientists could achieve the same great cures by taking stem cells from sources other than cloned embryos. Talent feared the cloning ban, sponsored by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) would have criminalized a process similar to cloning called altered nuclear transfer, which he considered an ethical alternative to embryonic stem-cell research.
"A number of the alternatives involve cloning something that is not an embryo but it could be close enough to it," Talent told WORLD. "The changing technology convinced me that we had the wrong basic structure for how a ban ought to be written. That what we needed was an administrative ban that we could update according to changing technology, rather than freezing a criminal law ban with those definitions in the statute." How did Brownback, a fellow pro-life conservative and Talent's roommate in Washington, D.C., take the news?
"Sam was very understanding," Talent said. "I don't want to speak for Sam, but you know there are differences within the pro-life movement about the status of altered nuclear transfer, and there are some people who don't want to do altered nuclear transfer. . . . This is an in-house debate that I think we do need to resolve at some point."
Altered nuclear transfer is not the only hairline dividing Republicans in the stem-cell debate. At home in Missouri, many traditionally pro-life Republicans, including Gov. Matt Blunt, support the stem-cell amendment Talent opposes. A SurveyUSA poll released Oct. 10 showed 57 percent of Missourians supported the amendment, 27 percent opposed it, and 16 percent were undecided. Talent has tried to overcome the Republican divisions caused by stem cells by redirecting attention to issues around which all conservatives can rally.
"One of the huge issues is who stands for Missouri's common-sense conservative values," Talent said when asked if the stem-cell amendment was the defining issue of this election. "It's bigger than any one issue. It's the marriage amendment, which I supported and my opponent doesn't. It's also the ban on partial-birth abortions. I mean, she's never stood for prenatal life under any circumstances. . . . She didn't support the confirmation of [U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel] Alito, and of course I did. There's just a whole series of issues where I've stood up because I believe in them."
Out on the campaign trail, Talent has to do more than muster conservatives who might disagree with him on stem cells and cloning. He also has to woo swing voters who want to take out their disapproval of the president on Talent. A September SurveyUSA poll showed the president's approval rating among Missourians was rising but still low at 41 percent.
Voters surveyed in a USA Today/Gallup poll in September named the war in Iraq, the economy, terrorism, health care, and education among the issues they thought Congress should address. Talent's main message in October, however, which he repeated in a stump speech to St. Louis Republicans, an interview with WORLD, and a Meet the Press debate with McCaskill, focused on his bipartisan record on issues such as renewable energy and controlling methamphetamines. The only top issue from the Gallup poll he regularly brought up was immigration, on which he and Bush disagree.
Meanwhile, McCaskill has hammered Talent with a statistic from Congressional Quarterly stating he has voted with the White House 94 percent of the time. When Tim Russert challenged him with that statistic on Meet the Press, Talent replied, "Why don't they ever say in those surveys that the president agreed with me a certain percentage of the time? I've been in public life a lot longer than he has. When I went into Congress, I think he was still running the Texas Rangers."
A week later, a poll by major television stations in Missouri showed McCaskill had gained the edge on Talent 51 percent to 42 percent. Technically, that puts Talent within the margin of error to tie McCaskill, but not to take the lead.