Three Republicans hungrily eyeing Claire McCaskill's Missouri Senate seat have spent the past few months trying to tarnish each other's conservative credentials while polishing their own — a tactic that's designed to appeal to Tuesday's primary voters but one that could hurt the party's chances against the vulnerable freshman Democrat in November.
While latest polls show that Rep. W. Todd Akin, St. Louis businessman John Brunner and former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman could each beat the incumbent in the general election, Mrs. McCaskill insists her challengers have already put themselves too far to the right.
"The question is, will they lose the moderate Republicans in this very visible effort that they are undergoing to be the tea party guy," Mrs. McCaskill told The Washington Times. "I'm hoping that's the case and, if it is the case, I'll have the come-from-behind victory that I've had two or three times before."
While the race has remained close for months, the most recent polls have given Mr. Brunner the edge. In a Rasmussen Reports state poll last month, he enjoyed a 6-point lead over Mrs. Steelman and a 16-point lead over Mr. Akin as the three headed into their final days of campaigning. In a hypothetical November faceoff, Mrs. McCaskill trailed Mr. Brunner by 11 points, Mrs. Steelman by 8 points and Mr. Akin by 5 points.
Mrs. McCaskill was elected to the Senate with just 50 percent of the vote in 2006, and her race is considered one of the key contests to decide control of the Senate in 2013. Mitt Romney leads President Obama in statewide polls and considered likely to carry the state in November, making the Democrat's task that much harder.
A weekend survey by Public Policy Polling also put Mr. Brunner ahead in the primary, with 35 percent support to 30 percent for Mr. Akin and 25 percent for Mrs. Steelman, although the poll also found Mr. Akin's voters more motivated and Mr. Brunner's lead shrinking in the closing days.
Mrs. McCaskill said she doesn't care which of the three she faces in November. But she released a trio of television ads last month that some took as an attempt to boost prospects for Mr. Akin, who could present an easier challenge for her.
In her ad targeting Mr. Akin, she focused on his conservative credentials, calling him "the most conservative congressman in Missouri," while she spent her two other 30-second ads slamming Mr. Brunner over his business career and leveling charges of political corruption at Mrs. Steelman.
But Mrs. McCaskill said she needed to start attacking all three because no one was emerging as a front-runner, and it wasn't her intention to frame Mr. Akin as more conservative than the rest.
"I got tired of being pounded and I felt like I had to do something against all three of them, so we tried to put on the air for all three of them the things that disqualify them the most with independent voters," she said. "So it doesn't matter to me who wins."
As the three have competed for the title of most conservative, very few policy differences have surfaced among them over the course of 18 debates, with all three expressing their distaste for President Obama's health care law, calling for a crackdown on deficit spending and talking about how they want to eliminate some of the biggest federal agencies.
And each has won endorsements from top conservatives, making it even more difficult for Missouri Republicans to make their choice.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has appeared in ads backing Mr. Akin, who also got an endorsement from famed conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly. Mr. Brunner has picked up endorsements from Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson and Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, who have both campaigned with him. And former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who has endorsed Mrs. Steelman, joined her in southwest Missouri to campaign Friday night.
But while painting their rivals as liberals has been a challenge — with Mr. Akin known as one of the most conservative members of the House and Mr. Brunner having never held office before — the Republican trio still managed to batter each other on topics of spending and debt.
While Mrs. Steelman criticized Mr. Brunner for relying heavily on debt and federal tax credits in his business ventures, Mr. Brunner pummeled her for supporting the selling of state bonds to pay for infrastructure projects and forced Mr. Akin to defend his past votes for supporting earmarks and voting to raise the federal debt ceiling — prompting a bit of skepticism among some in his district.
"You can say a lot of things about Todd Akin, but to say he's not conservative is just ridiculous," said Steve Ehlmann, county executive for St. Charles, a western suburb of St. Louis that falls within Mr. Akin's 2nd Congressional District.
Mr. Brunner has dominated the airwaves, assisted by millions of dollars from his personal fortune, touting himself as the anti-incumbent businessman who has never once held public office. Meanwhile, Mr. Akin and Mrs. Steelman have struggled to raise enough money to defend themselves against his string of attack ads.
That airwaves advantage could be all he needs to gain a victory Tuesday. Even though he doesn't have a conservative record to show voters, he has checked off all the right boxes, so to speak, to satisfy Missouri Republicans, analysts said.
"You have to check off the following issues, or you're not a candidate," said Terry Jones, a political science professor at the University of Missouri. "Health care, deficit, abortion, guns, prayer in school — Brunner's checked off all the appropriate check marks and so have Steelman and Akin."
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