- The Washington Times - Friday, August 23, 2002

SEDALIA, MO. The outcome of the race between Democratic Sen. Jean Carnahan and former Republican Rep. Jim Talent may well be decided by how much importance Missouri voters give to one quality: experience.

Mr. Talent, 45, a former eight-term congressman with a long legislative record, says he has a lot of it and she doesn't.

Mrs. Carnahan, 68, who was thrust into the rough-and-tumble of election politics when she was appointed to the Senate seat her husband won posthumously three weeks after he was killed in a plane crash, has never run for elective office.

Now she is being criticized by some lobbyists and Republicans for her lack of experience and remedial understanding of the issues. But she says that experience can take many forms and that she "had to raise a family, and took care of my father in his later years," which taught her about health care issues. "What really matters is how you do the job," Mrs. Carnahan said in an interview here.

"She's had a lot of experience. She's proven she can do the job," said her campaign spokesman, Dan Leistikow, who adds that Mrs. Carnahan was once a Sunday school teacher and also owns a family farm, run by her daughter, that has 80 head of cattle.

But Mr. Talent points out that he served four terms on the House Armed Services Committee a critical panel for a state that has a huge defense industry and he chaired the House Small Business Committee, which crafted 20 bills that became law. That kind of Washington experience is the core issue in this contest, he said.

"I have a record that shows I can make the Senate work for Missouri, and I'm the only one in the race who does," he said in an interview at the Missouri State Fair, where he and the senator were campaigning for votes yesterday.

"The voters are going to have to judge Mrs. Carnahan's performance, and they are going to judge my performance. I'm content to have them compare the records," he said.

Questions about her experience and credentials were pushed further into the spotlight last week when the American Airlines-TWA merger deal for which she takes credit appeared to be souring. American Airlines has announced 7,000 layoffs, including 550 TWA pilots and hundreds of other airline workers in the St. Louis area.

Mrs. Carnahan's TV ads promote her role in the merger, which she says she considers the major achievement of her first year and a half in office. "We saved those jobs, and I was very proud of that," she told The Washington Times.

But at a news conference in St. Louis on Wednesday with angry, laid-off TWA pilots, Mr. Talent charged that the merger agreement about jobs and seniority was "poorly structured," and later the state's senior senator, Republican Christopher S. Bond, bitterly rebuked Mrs. Carnahan for taking credit for it.

"For her to claim that she was responsible [for saving jobs] doesn't pass the laugh test," Mr. Bond said in an interview. "The entire congressional delegation got behind this."

"Mrs. Carnahan has been endorsed by American Airlines officers, and I think that may not be too helpful [in the election] when American is not seen taking care of former TWA employees," he said.

Sensing that Mrs. Carnahan has been thrown on the defensive by the layoffs, the National Republican Senatorial Committee ran radio ads last weekend in Missouri, saying her claim of saving TWA jobs was bogus.

But campaign strategists say the layoffs raise a broader issue her ability to get things done for Missouri and her understanding of complex political issues. Notably, Mrs. Carnahan was still talking about "saving those jobs" one day after TWA workers were notified that they would be losing them and the job-layoff story was getting front-page, banner headlines in the state's major newspapers.

Asked for her response to the job losses she claimed to have saved, Mrs. Carnahan replied in broad, general terms rather than addressing the specifics of the matter. "You have to keep working all the time. You don't stop. We have to fight every step of the way," she said.

Veteran elections analyst Charlie Cook wrote last month that a Democratic Missouri lobbyist complained, after talking to Mrs. Carnahan, "I didn't expect for her to understand our issues, but she didn't understand the [legislative] process."

Mr. Talent's campaign aides believe that Mrs. Carnahan's weak knowledge of many issues is the reason she is reluctant to engage in campaign debates. Mr. Talent wants as many as six debates, or three at a minimum. The senator's advisers have agreed to participate in only one on Oct. 24, a little more than a week before the election.

But it is Mrs. Carnahan's voting record over the past year and a half that Mr. Talent says "does not reflect Missouri values."

He cites her vote not to confirm Attorney General John Ashcroft, whom her husband defeated in his re-election bid, and her opposition to permanent repeal of the estate tax, to drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, to the trade bill and to missile-defense funding.

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