Vague disquiet roils voters in Missouri race

WARRENSBURG, Mo. — Sen. Jim Talent is not responsible for $3-a-gallon gas or the Iraq war, but many voters here are linking him to an unpopular commander in chief and say they will punish him at the polls because he is a Republican.

Ian Billingsley, a computer operator at Central Missouri State University, said he probably will vote for Democrats as the “lesser of two evils,” even though he hadn’t heard anything “outrageous” about Mr. Talent.

“I’m not a fan of anything that’s going on at the moment,” he said.

Mr. Talent faces a significant re-election challenge in November, with Democratic state Auditor Claire McCaskill essentially running even with him in the polls. Voters in the increasingly frustrated electorate here, especially in economically challenged rural Missouri, say they likely will seek a change, even though they may disagree with the Democrats.

Most voters interviewed said life “could be better, could be worse,” in the words of one, but all said they were mostly unhappy with the direction of the nation. They also described themselves as skeptical or cynics, saying once Missouri politicians leave the state, they lose touch with real folks.

“It seems like once people get up there, they forget about where they came from,” said Dick Wilbers, owner of Johnny’s Butcher Shop Bar-B-Que in Jefferson City.

A 2004 Bush voter, now Mr. Wilbers isn’t so sure. After observing Mr. Talent earlier this month at the Governor’s Ham Breakfast at the Missouri State Fair, he said he is likely to base his vote on the price of gas come Nov. 7.

Mr. Talent, who won his Senate seat in a 2002 special election, is in tune with that sentiment.

“This is an election where they sense that the Washington establishment is alienated from them, and they are right,” he said. “They want people who will move that establishment. The question is: Are you going to make the system work for their values and their interests?”

Mr. Talent added that he thinks Missouri, which has chosen the presidential winner in all elections since 1960, is a swing state.

Missouri’s two senators and five of its nine representatives are Republicans, but it has alternated between Democratic and Republican governors.

Mrs. McCaskill, who is backed by former President Bill Clinton, said voters are more concerned about gas prices and think politicians would rather help big corporations than the working man.

“People are angry about gas prices; they are angry about what they see as attacks on the middle class,” she said.

But Talent voter Olan Stemme, 60, of Hermann, praised the incumbent for crossing party lines to deal with the state’s methamphetamine problem and to push renewable-fuel legislation.

Democrats say that won’t be enough for the freshman senator to keep his seat in an anti-Republican wave.

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