- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 3, 2011

Already a top target for Republicans in 2012, Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill has tried to walk a political tightrope in recent days that has instead served to alienate members of both parties.

Working with Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker, Mrs. McCaskill was the lone Democratic co-sponsor of a spending-cuts bill introduced this week to cut and cap the level of federal spending over the next decade, in part by tinkering with the funding for Social Security and other entitlement programs.

Mrs. McCaskill, one of 11 freshman Senate Democrats whose terms expire next year, readily acknowledged the political danger, saying Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will likely disapprove and that her office is already “hearing from lots of folks who are busy trying to undermine this effort.”

“There’s a political risk here,” she said. “I guarantee you, in Missouri in the not-too-distant future there will be a 30-second commercial that says I’m trying to take Social Security away from seniors…. But I really want to preserve it. This one is worth being sent home for.”

Whether the move will protect her politically is another matter.

Republicans have been relentless in singling out Mrs. McCaskill for defeat, portraying her as a free spender and one of President Obama’s most reliable Senate allies. GOP officials say her backing of a bill to curb federal spending flies in the face of her record.

“In the four years she’s been in the Senate, the federal deficit has climbed $5 trillion,” said Brian Walsh, of the National Republican SenatorialCommittee. “Now facing a tough re-election, she’s made a transparent political maneuver in trying to pretend she’s a fiscal conservative.”

Last month, Mrs. McCaskill joined Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions and other GOP senators in supporting a proposal to set binding limits on discretionary defense and nondefense spending through 2014.

Mrs. McCaskill has defended her voting record, which includes support for Mr. Obama’s health care package and the $814 billion stimulus bill, saying recently that Mr. Obama cannot simply count on her vote.

With the election still 21 months away, Mrs. McCaskill’s biggest challenge will likely be her support for the president’s health care law. In an early sign of the political peril of the vote, Missourians overwhelmingly rejected a central plank of the plan — the mandate that all Americans purchase health insurance — in a 2010 midterm state referendum.

Mrs. McCaskill also sided with Democratic leaders in Wednesday’s showdown vote on a GOP measure to repeal the entire health care law.

“She’s swimming in extremely rough waters, with ‘Obamacare’ as a millstone tied around her neck,” said Jonathan Collegio, spokesman for American Crossroads, the new Republican PAC that spent heavily in support of GOP candidates in the 2010 elections.

A prime illustration of the partisan scrutiny she is under came this week when the Democratic National Committee announced that Charlotte, N.C., had beat out St. Louis and other contenders for the right to host the party’s 2012 convention, where Mr. Obama will presumably be nominated for a second term.

Mrs. McCaskill and Democratic officials strongly disputed a New York Times story that she had quietly lobbied against her own state’s bid because of Mr. Obama’s unpopularity there - despite the prestige and economic benefits to be had from hosting the convention.

Hosting the convention “brings organization. It brings money. … It brings enthusiasm and passion,” Mrs. McCaskill told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Why would I ever work against it?”

But Missouri Republicans were already seizing on the report to accuse the senator of a “cynical betrayal” of her own state’s interests.

“I realize that President Obama’s agenda is unpopular in the Show Me State,” Ed Martin, chief of staff to former GOP Gov. Matt Blunt and a tea party activist who formally entered the race on Monday, said in a statement. “Nevertheless, in these hard economic times, Sen. McCaskill’s constituents … would benefit from the more than $200 million that the 2012 convention would have brought.”

Some Democrats think Mrs. McCaskill is well advised to put a little daylight between herself and the national Democratic leadership as her re-election bid gears up.

“She’s in a tough fight,” said David Heller, president of the Democratic strategy firm Main Street Communications. “One thing she has going for her is a serious Republican primary that could leave them broken and divided by August. Right now, I think she’s using a smart strategy … in trying to control the center.”

In a classic swing state that narrowly went to Republican Sen. John McCain in the 2008 presidential election, recent polls put Mrs. McCaskill’s support at slightly under 50 percent, with forecasters seeing the race as essentially a toss-up.

Former GOP Sen. Jim Talent, considered by many her strongest potential opponent, said recently he will not seek a rematch of 2006, creating a wide-open Republican primary. Mr. Martin and Sarah Steelman, a former state treasurer, have already announced they are running.

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