- The Washington Times - Monday, July 29, 2002

Missouri Republicans, lobbyists and a few election analysts are raising a troubling question about whether Sen. Jean Carnahan is "lost in the Senate."
Mrs. Carnahan is one of this year's most vulnerable Democrats. Not only because she has never held elective office before, but also because of growing criticism that she has little grasp of the issues and the legislative process.
In one of the most unlikely stories in modern political history, she was appointed to her Senate seat after her late husband, Gov. Mel Carnahan, defeated Sen. John Ashcroft posthumously in the 2000 campaign. Mr. Carnahan and his son were killed in a plane crash a few weeks before the election. Voters went to the polls believing that a grieving widow would be named to his seat if he won.
Now, after 19 months of on-the-job training, she is running for what would have been the remaining four years of her husband's term. Her Republican opponent former four-term Rep. James Talent almost won the governorship in 2000 and is running his Senate campaign on eight years of legislative experience.
She, on the other hand, is telling voters that if she loses, Republicans will take over the Senate where Democrats cling to a fragile, one-vote majority.
"And if they can take me down, then [Senate Republican Leader] Trent Lott can be back in charge again," she is telling voters.
Since she took her seat, she has had the political luxury of being virtually off-limits from any criticism, especially from the Missouri news media. But in D.C., that gentle, hands-off treatment ended this month when a respected political analyst suggested that her remedial knowledge of the legislative machinery is a legitimate issue.
"There is considerable anecdotal evidence from Missourians and inside-the-Beltway types of both parties that Carnahan sometimes seems lost in the Senate," election analyst Charlie Cook wrote in the National Journal.
"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," ' Mr. Cook wrote.
"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," he said.
Since her appointment, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle has "teed up issues for her to help her build a record of accomplishment, but that's not the same as being on top of the job," he said.
Mrs. Carnahan's press secretary, Tony Wyche, says such charges are "patently untrue. She has been very active. Pushing bills through the process and getting them signed by the president is a clear indication that she understands the process," he told me.
But that is not the view of a number of top legislative lobbyists I have talked to recently who confirm Mr. Cook's account of the senator. They told me she was not fully familiar with many issues and suffered from a weak staff. Many of the bills she claimed as her own were sometimes bills she merely cosponsored with other senators or were handed to her by the leadership to introduce as her own, they said.
"I have heard a lot of people say this is a woman who is totally lost up here," one business lobbyist told me. "Others have told me that she doesn't understand the issues in any depth."
Another top Capitol Hill lobbyist said he found her "unprepared on some issues and relies heavily on her staff."
In one case, she had to change her vote during consideration of permanent repeal of the death tax after she was seen talking to Mr. Daschle in the midst of the roll call. The Wall Street Journal editorial page said her earlier indecision on permanently repealing the estate tax "sounds to us as if she's waiting for orders from Mr. Daschle." She finally voted with Mr. Daschle against permanent repeal.
You would think Mr. Cook's report, which triggered a lot of buzz here, would have found its way somewhere in the Missouri news media. The state GOP sent out a news release, titled "Lost in the Senate," which recounted Mr. Cook's story. But a Republican official said "not one word" was reported in the state.
This points up one of the biggest political obstacles Mr. Talent faces in the race. "Carnahan receives fawning coverage from the state's press corps, while those same journalists rarely miss an opportunity to stick it to him," Mr. Cook said.
Mr. Talent, who served on the House Armed Services Committee, knows he cannot afford to openly question Mrs. Carnahan's competence without appearing mean and insensitive.
Instead, "he believes the voters are going to determine who has the most experience in the race. That's how he answers that question," says Mr. Talent's campaign press secretary Rich Chrismer.
Mr. Talent believes that if the race is decided on the experience issue, he will win. Mrs. Carnahan, on the other hand, is running to keep the Senate in Democratic hands. As of last week, the contest was considered a tossup.

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


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