She earned her degrees from a state university and sent her children to Catholic school. He graduated from seminary and a private college and chose to educate his children at home.
There's little Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill and GOP challenger Rep. W. Todd Akin agree on, but as the two compete for Missouri's Senate seat, few issues better illustrate their massive philosophical -- and personal -- differences than education.
And while education is largely a second-tier concern in an election all about jobs and the economy, Ms. McCaskill has dug into Mr. Akin's positions on the subject to help supply her regular round of attacks, pummeling him over his opposition to federally backed student loans and even the federal school lunch program.
The divide on education policy could prove a tipping point in a race Republicans have long hoped would provide the party a springboard to reclaim control of the Senate in November.
The candidates' differences over education policy are deep, with Ms. McCaskill generally backing a more robust government role, while Mr. Akin goes as far as to support the elimination of the federal Department of Education.
She opposes school vouchers; he says they're a good idea. She agrees with President Obama's steps to allow some young illegal immigrants to remain in the U.S. if they attend college; Mr. Akin doesn't. She has been endorsed by the state teachers unions; home-schoolers have been turning out in droves to campaign for him.
They do share a rare agreement on President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind program, but even that was for vastly different reasons. Mr. Akin bucked his own party to oppose it on the grounds that Mr. Bush's signature education-reform law gave the federal government too much authority, while Ms. McCaskill agrees some mandates in the law should be waived for states -- but because local school officials widely panned the program.
Still, major education questions have mainly remained on the race's back burneras Ms. McCaskill has focused on hitting Mr. Akin over such things as federal spending for college loans and student lunches -- issues that could help her gain the support of moderates and paint him as a "right-wing extremist."
"He's out of the mainstream," she told a gathering of Missouri news editors at a debate last month. "He wants to abolish the minimum wage, he wants to do away with student loans, he wants to privatize Medicare, privatize Social Security, he wants to do away with the student lunch program."
"Let's start with a couple really basic things," Mr. Akin shot back. "If you don't believe the federal government should do everything, that doesn't mean you don't believe in it. ... Just because you believe in private lenders doesn't mean you don't believe in student loans."
While Ms. McCaskill is widely seen as vulnerable, Mr. Akin's campaign has been hurt almost from the start by remarks he made in August after winning the GOP nomination that women who are victims of "legitimate" rape aren't likely to become pregnant. He has seen national party contributions dry up and top GOP figures from Mitt Romney down saying he should quit the race.
Some individual Republicans have gradually jumped back on board in recent weeks, and Mr. Akin announced Wednesday that he has raised more than $1 million in online donations, but the conservative congressman still faces a concentrated effort by the McCaskill campaign to cast him as far to the right as possible. And while Mr. Akin has crept up to a single-digit deficit in the polls, Ms. McCaskill is well-positioned for the final month of the campaign, raising nearly $6 million from July to September and holding hundreds of thousands of dollars of pre-paid airtime in the final weeks.
Analysts say she's also doing a good job of hitting Mr. Akin where he is vulnerable, especially when it comes to federally subsidized school lunches -- a program that has seen its enrollment dramatically expand in recent years.
"It's very rare that you get candidates actually proposing closing one of the most popular programs you have," said Kenneth Warren, a political science professor and pollster at St. Louis University. "One can understand Todd Akin's opposition to a lot of government spending. ... It's just that when you do polls on what to cut and what not to cut, the school lunch program is certainly not one of those things people want to cut."
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