Missouri Sen. Jim Talent tried to distance himself from President Bush yesterday in a nationally televised debate, during which he and his Democratic opponent, Claire McCaskill, argued over Iraq and stem-cell research.
Tim Russert, host of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” challenged both candidates on their past statements — asking Mr. Talent about his ties to the poorly polling president and Mrs. McCaskill about her insinuating Mr. Bush is a racist.
Mr. Talent blanched when Mr. Russert noted that Mr. Bush has campaigned for him in Missouri at least four times, and the senator has voted with the president 94 percent of the time, according to Congressional Quarterly.
“Why don’t they ever say in those surveys that the president agreed with me a certain percentage of the time?” Mr. Talent asked. “I’ve been in public life a lot longer than he has. When I went in the Congress, I think he was still running the Texas Rangers. He’s come a little bit further, I guess, than I have since then.”
Mr. Talent, first elected as a representative in 1992, contended that he is independent of Mr. Bush on immigration, farm policy and highway funding.
The senator opposed the “comprehensive” immigration plan that most senators and the president supported. He said it equates to amnesty for illegal aliens.
Mr. Russert also got tough on Mrs. McCaskill, the state auditor, over these September comments: “George Bush let people die on rooftops in New Orleans because they were poor and because they were black.”
When asked whether she should apologize for her remark, first reported by St. Louis blog Pub Def Weekly, Mrs. McCaskill didn’t back down.
“I was acknowledging what Americans believed at the time. I don’t believe he’s a racist,” she said. “I probably should have said it another way, but the feelings are real.”
The two candidates are neck and neck in one of the nation’s most closely watched races, a key race for Democrats hoping to regain Senate control.
The Iraq war provided sharp contrast between Mr. Talent and Mrs. McCaskill, with the incumbent saying the U.S. has “made progress” despite escalating troop casualties and the Democrat calling the prolonged conflict a “mess.”
Mr. Talent, who called his challenger’s views on wiretapping and detainee treatment “weak,” said he would still have voted for the Iraq war had he known there were no weapons of mass destruction, because he thought removing Saddam Hussein from power was crucial to the war on terrorism. “It was the only possible strategic choice,” he said.
Mrs. McCaskill said equating Iraq with the war on terrorism is an attempt to confuse voters in an election year and said she wants the U.S. to begin withdrawing troops.
“We are creating more terrorists around the world with this failed policy in Iraq,” she said.
But Mr. Talent shot back: “It’s not a question of politics, it’s not a question of people’s motives, it’s a question of what’s going to win this war. And positions of weakness are not going to do it.”
Mr. Talent’s vote against a bill to provide federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research is a hot topic in Missouri, where polls show strong support for the Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative on the state’s fall ballot. Actor Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson’s disease, recently raised $200,000 for Mrs. McCaskill, calling her a “champion” of stem-cell research.
Mr. Talent yesterday called stem-cell research a form of cloning and said the benefits of such research were “speculative.”
“The ballot issue would create a constitutional right — an unqualified constitutional right — to clone the earliest stages of human life,” something he said he is “not comfortable doing” as an evangelical Christian.
“Our country has never turned its back on medical research, and we shouldn’t in Missouri,” Mrs. McCaskill countered, adding that her religion teaches her to be a healer.
The Missouri measure would amend the state constitution to protect the type of stem-cell research allowed at the federal level. It sets guidelines to conduct research on stem cells “ethically and safely” and bans human cloning.