- The Washington Times - Friday, September 21, 2012

Besides attacking each other over Medicare, school lunches and the Iraq war, Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill and GOP challenger Rep. Todd Akin spent their first debate Friday blaming each other for the gridlock in Congress that has stalled crucial pieces of legislation over the last two years.

And after initially mentioning the damaging comments on rape and pregnancy that have dogged her Republican opponent over the last month, Mrs. McCaskill didn’t bring them up again.

Instead, both candidates talked mainly about their sharp policy differences, with Mr. Akin trying to paint Mrs. McCaskill as an Obama liberal while she insisted he is a right-wing extremist on nearly every major issue.

“If you vote 98 percent of the time with Obama and tell us at the same time you’re a moderate voter, that takes a lot of guts,” Mr. Akin said to Missouri newspaper editors gathered in Columbia.

“It’s not what he says that’s the problem, it’s what he believes that is the problem,” Mrs. McCaskill shot back.

Already viewed as one of the country’s most important Senate contests, the Missouri race became the center of attention last month when Mr. Akin made a major fumble, telling a local television station that victims of “legitimate rape” are unlikely to become pregnant — a comment that led GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and much of the party establishment to call for his withdrawal from the race.

Besides the rape comments, which have threatened to push Mr. Akin out of the race entirely, Mrs. McCaskill also stayed away from so-called “women’s issues” such as mandatory contraception coverage and equal pay, which have become major Democratic attacking points.

Instead, she highlighted two bills that have been passed by the Democratic-led Senate but are idling in the House as Republican leaders refuse to act on them: a five-year farm spending bill and a bill aiming to make the U.S. Postal Service financially stable.

Congressman Akin is part of a gridlock that won’t pass it,” Mrs. McCaskill said. “I would ask you, Congressman Akin: Go back to Washington, stop campaigning and help us pass the postal bill.”

Mr. Akin focused on the Senate’s failure to pass a budget in more than three years, which Democratic leaders have said is because spending levels were already agreed to in the August 2011 debt-ceiling deal.

“That’s the reason I’m running for the Senate, because the Senate can’t get anything done,” Mr. Akin said. “It’s federal law that we’re supposed to have a budget every year and the Senate can’t do that.”

Polls give a small lead to Mrs. McCaskill, a 59-year-old first-term senator from rural Missouri considered one of the must vulnerable Democratic incumbents this cycle. The 65-year-old Mr. Akin, now in his sixth term, is likely to face an uphill battle after losing support from the major GOP donors.

The two also sparred over federally subsidized student loans — which Mr. Akin has said should be eliminated — and how to reverse the mounting rate of obesity.

On that point, they found some agreement, both saying the government shouldn’t regulate what types of food people consume, or how much of it. Mrs. McCaskill said her solution would be to educate the public about health and make sure people have access to preventive care services.

“I know it’s a struggle,” she said. “I’m a woman in her fifties. I’ve got seven sizes of clothes in my closet and I go from one end to the other.”

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