- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 17, 2006

SEDALIA, Mo. — Sen. Jim Talent told rural voters at the state fair here yesterday that he is a better choice than state Auditor Claire McCaskill, a Democrat whose national momentum has vaulted her into a dead heat with the Republican incumbent less than three months before the midterm elections.

Mr. Talent said his experience helps small agricultural businesses and cattle ranchers, while Mrs. McCaskill accused her opponent of being too close to corporate farmers to the detriment of the average Missourian.

“I’ve been endorsed by the Farm Bureau and she has been endorsed by the Sierra Club, and that sums it all up,” Mr. Talent said, prompting bureau members to laugh.

Mrs. McCaskill said family farmers tell her they are worried about high gas prices and the rising cost of health care, problems exacerbated by the consolidation of farms.

“I have heard from so many people who live in rural Missouri about the frustrations they have,” she said after a meet-and-greet at the traditional Governor’s Ham Breakfast.

“If we don’t send somebody to Washington who is willing to stand up to corporate agriculture,” she said, “we will never be able to have the family farmer in this state survive. Senator Talent has been the best friend of corporate agriculture.”

The National Farmers Union Political Action Committee yesterday endorsed Mrs. McCaskill.

However, Mr. Talent said his seat on the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee allows him to push for renewable fuel legislation and aid for small farmers.

“If we handle this right, I think we will see a reflowering of agriculture around this country … where people can count on being able to make a living off agriculture,” he said. “If we do the wrong things, we could be importing food before too long.”

As the two candidates stumped for votes in this town about 95 miles east of Kansas City, they also highlighted their differences on ending the estate tax.

Congressional Republicans this summer lumped an increase of the minimum wage with a repeal of the posthumous tax on the estates of wealthy citizens, which critics call the “death tax.”

Mr. Talent supported the measure, but Democrats opposed the bill and said it unfairly gave tax cuts to the wealthy.

Mrs. McCaskill said yesterday that she supports a permanent exemption for the estate tax on a family farm worth up to $7 million.

She said Republicans are using family farmers as a political prop in the debate and, “what they are really interested in is protecting people like Paris Hilton.”

Dean Knipp, a corn, soybean and wheat farmer from Tipton, Mo., said he thinks voters will choose Mrs. McCaskill in the election because the economy is weakened, particularly in Missouri, which is in the middle of a drought. He said he is glad politicians are paying more attention to rural Missouri compared with previous elections. “It does count,” he said.

Paul Gibbs of the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association, which has endorsed Mr. Talent, said the “death tax” repeal is the main reason he supports the senator, but he thinks Mrs. McCaskill probably will win the race based on the national political mood.

Mr. Talent, whose approval ratings in the state have declined along with President Bush’s popularity, made a point of saying he is independent from the president.

He quickly listed issues on which he disagrees with Mr. Bush, including farm policy. When a reporter asked Mr. Talent whether he was distancing himself from the president, who has campaigned for the senator in Missouri, he said: “No, I’m being me. When I agree with somebody, I say it, and when I disagree with somebody, I say it.”

Political observers think Mr. Talent, whose family members were dairy farmers, is likely to fare better in rural regions of the state, while Mrs. McCaskill will get most of the votes in the urban centers of Kansas City and St. Louis.

Mr. Talent, a 49-year-old lawyer by profession, ran for governor in 2000 and lost by 20,000 votes to Democrat Bob Holden. He won his Senate seat in a 2002 special election with 50 percent of the vote.

Mrs. McCaskill beat Mr. Holden in a 2004 Democratic primary election and lost the governor’s race to Republican Matt Blunt, who captured 51 percent of the vote to her 48 percent.

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