- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 29, 2002

Missouri Sen. Jean Carnahan's campaign is in trouble.Voters have doubts about the Democrat's limited experience and her remedial understanding of the issues. Her Republican rival, Jim Talent, leads in the polls. And Missouri's senior senator, Republican Kit Bond, ridicules her claim that she saved airline jobs in the state.

Mrs. Carnahan attained her Senate seat on a wave of public sympathy in the 2000 election. Her husband, the late Gov. Mel Carnahan, was running against then-Sen. John Ashcroft in a race that was too close to call. When the governor and his son were killed in a plane crash a few weeks before the election, Democrats made it known that, if the deceased Carnahan won, his grief-stricken widow would be appointed to his seat until a new election could be held. Mr. Ashcroft, who stopped campaigning and refused to challenge the constitutionally dubious maneuver, didn't have a chance.

Mrs. Carnahan now is running for the remaining four years of what would have been her husband's six-year term. This time, however, the sympathy factor appears to have receded.

The contrast between the two candidates could not be sharper. Mrs. Carnahan, 68, has a limited grasp of the issues, and it shows. Mr. Talent, 45, a former eight-term congressman with a long legislative record, knows the issues in detail and has moved dozens of bills through Congress.

But, in an interview at the Missouri State Fair, in Sedalia, the senator argued that experience can take many forms. While her husband tended to politics, she "had to raise a family," and "I cared for my father" in his later years, which taught her about health-care issues. "What really matters is how you do the job," she told me.

Mr. Talent, on the other hand, served four terms on the House Armed Services Committee, a panel that is critical to Missouri's huge defense industry. He chaired the Small Business Committee, which passed 20 bills that became law.

"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 a lengthy interview. "The voters are going to have to judge Mrs. Carnahan's performance, and they are going to judge my performance."

They got a chance to do that recently when the American Airlines-TWA merger, for which Mrs. Carnahan takes credit, turned sour. Her campaign ads claim she saved the jobs of TWA pilots and other workers in the St. Louis area, even though 550 TWA pilots and hundreds of other airline employees in the state are being laid off.

A skilled campaigner who came within an eyelash of winning the governorship in 2000, Mr. Talent appeared at a news conference earlier this month with TWA pilots to support their complaints about seniority rights and impending layoffs. Mrs. Carnahan's claim to have saved their jobs sounded laughable.

In fact, Sen. Bond who has a strained working relationship with Mrs. Carnahan at best told me that, "For her to claim that she was responsible [for savings the TWA jobs] doesn't pass the laugh test."

Missouri's manufacturing and farming sectors have been hit hard, losing 55,000 jobs in the past year alone, more than any other state in the country. And the state's farmers have also been devastated by a severe drought.

Mr. Talent has the support of the Farm Bureau and the defense industry here. He says the defense cuts under Bill Clinton killed thousands of jobs and he wants to raise defense spending to boost production at Boeing's fighter aircraft plants in the state.

Mrs. Carnahan voted for Mr. Bush's tax cuts, but a string of other votes has damaged her reputation, beginning with her vote against confirming Mr. Ashcroft to be attorney general. She also voted against permanent repeal of the death tax, drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the trade expansion bill and increased funding for missile defense.

This week, a statewide survey of likely voters by pollster John Zogby for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch gave Mr. Talent the edge by 47.1 percent to 46 percent. That is within the 3.5 percent margin of error, but nonetheless it shows Mr. Talent "has momentum," Mr. Zogby said.

The results represented a sharp decline for Mrs. Carnahan, who had been running ahead in earlier polls. Mr. Talent's gains came from a "dramatic improvement" among St. Louis voters and among men statewide.

Clearly, the contrast between Mr. Talent's experience and his understanding of the issues is hurting Mrs. Carnahan who, in an interview with me, spoke largely in generalities.

This may be why her handlers are fighting Jim Talent's request for as many as six public debates, or a minimum of three. Mrs. Carnahan's campaign is holding out for only one debate, a week before the elections.

The message that approach sends loud and clear is that the campaign organizers have little, if any, confidence she can hold her ground against Mr. Talent's skills as a debater.

The Republicans need only one additional seat to retake the Senate. A little more than two months before Election Day, it looks like Missouri may provide it.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent for The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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