- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 16, 2002

Sen. Jean Carnahan of Missouri, one of this election year's most vulnerable Democrats, has drawn the ire of Democrats and Republicans and a few lobbyists who accuse her of not understanding issues or even "the legislative process."

Mrs. Carnahan, who was appointed to her Senate seat and faces her first election campaign, is locked in a spirited race with former Rep. James Talent, who served four terms in the House and is campaigning on his experience in Congress.

The senator's late husband, Gov. Mel Carnahan, defeated Sen. John Ashcroft posthumously, after the governor and his son were killed in a plane crash just days before the November 2000 election. Mrs. Carnahan is running to serve what would have been the final four years of his term.

Since she was appointed to his seat 18 months ago, Mrs. Carnahan has enjoyed the luxury of scant criticism. This ended abruptly last week when Republicans in Missouri and a Washington campaign analyst separately suggested that her remedial knowledge of how the legislative process works should be a legitimate issue.

Mr. Talent's campaign organization has not raised the competence issue directly, perhaps in fear of appearing to attack a widow grieving for both husband and son, and steers clear of personal criticism of Mrs. Carnahan. "He believes the election is about choices, differences between himself and Mrs. Carnahan," says Mr. Talent's press secretary, Rich Chrismer. "He believes the voters are going to determine who has the most experience in the race. That's how he answers that question."

She retains the advantages of the incumbent. "Talent confronts a considerable obstacle in that Carnahan receives fawning coverage from the state's press corps, while those same journalists rarely miss an opportunity to stick it to him," Charles Cook wrote in the National Journal.

For the past three months, Mr. Talent has been unsuccessfully challenging Mrs. Carnahan to debate him on the issue.

Mrs. Carnahan, with the help of her late husband's extensive political network, has raised a campaign war chest of $5.5 million. The polls show the race is a tossup that will "likely remain virtually even right up until Election Day," says election analyst Stuart Rothenberg.

A poll by John Zogby for the St. Louis Post Dispatch in April showed Mrs. Carnahan leading 50 percent to 44 percent. A poll by American Viewpoint, paid for by Mr. Talent, showed him ahead at 48 percent to 44 percent.

"Jean Carnahan has not proven her competence in the United States Senate," says John Hancock, executive director of the Missouri Republican Party. "What's worse is that she refuses to explain and defend the votes she has cast."

Mr. Cook, of the National Journal, cited "considerable anecdotal evidence from Missourians and inside-the-Beltway types of both parties that Carnahan sometimes seems lost in the Senate."

"As one Missouri Democrat who came to Washington to lobby Carnahan on a legislative issue said, 'I didn't expect for her to understand our issues, but she didn't understand the [legislative] process.' As harsh as this may sound, it's fair to question someone who has never served in elective office and is appointed to a job as big as U.S. senator."

Mrs. Carnahan's press secretary, Tony Wyche, scoffs at that. "Senator Carnahan's success in pushing bills through the process and getting them signed by the president is a clear indication that she understands the legislative process," he says.

"This is clearly politics, talking to lobbyists as opposed to people back in the state."

In interviews with The Washington Times, several lobbyists here agree with her critics that she was not intimately familiar with many issues and suffered from having a weak staff. Many of the bills she claimed as her own were sometimes bills that she co-sponsored with other senators or were presented to her by the leadership to introduce, they say.

"I have heard a lot of people say that this is a woman who is totally lost up here," says a top business lobbyist who is widely known on Capitol Hill but did not want to be identified.

"Others have told me that she doesn't understand the issues in any depth."

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