By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 9, 2006
Sen. James M. Talent of Missouri and Democratic challenger Claire McCaskill sparred over the war in Iraq, stem cell research and the House page scandal in a feisty debate yesterday, as the candidates fought for an edge in a race that polls show is a dead heat.
Talent's challenge is to win moderate suburban voters who have grown disillusioned with GOP leadership, while rallying the more partisan-minded social conservatives who live in rural southern Missouri. The senator battled throughout the debate to balance those competing constituencies.
Tim Russert, who moderated the debate on NBC's "Meet the Press," noted that Talent sided with Bush on almost every major issue and counted four times that the president had visited Missouri on Talent's behalf. He then asked Talent to evaluate Bush's tenure.
"Certainly, he's going to end up better than Jimmy Carter, probably not as good as Ronald Reagan," the senator replied. "A lot depends on what happens on whether we can complete the mission in Iraq, and win the war on terror."
McCaskill, now serving as the state auditor, also is juggling constituencies. She is vying with Talent for suburban voters and some rural support, while counting on a huge Democratic-base turnout in St. Louis and Kansas City. She was drawn into an exchange on abortion, one of the many divisive social issues that she has steadfastly avoided throughout the campaign.
"I certainly believe that abortion should remain safe, legal and rare," McCaskill said. "But why don't we concentrate on prevention? None of us want abortion, none of us support abortion."
Pressed by Talent and Russert, she said she supported a ban on so-called partial-birth abortion, with an exception for the life of the mother.
McCaskill, meanwhile, has sought to paint Talent as a conservative extremist on the issue of embryonic stem cell research. Missouri voters will consider a proposed constitutional amendment on Nov. 7 to safeguard early stage stem cell research.
The initiative is supported by prominent moderate Republicans such as former senator John Danforth, along with Gov. Matt Blunt. Supporters believe the measure could be a boon to biomedical research, by making Missouri the first state to formally recognize a right for scientists to conduct the research and for patients to receive treatment.
Talent opposes the measure because he said it could lead to human cloning. "My faith directs me to heal the sick," McCaskill countered.
The candidates spent most of the 40-minute session arguing about national security. McCaskill sketched out the approach to Iraq that she favors: "We need to give them notice. We need to tell the Iraqi government that we're not going to build democracy at the barrel of a gun. It's time for them to stand up and begin taking responsibility for their country."
Talent defended the decision to go to war as "the only possible strategic choice" and said it was warranted even though Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction. "Well, [Saddam Hussein] wanted them," Talent told Russert. He said the current level of sectarian violence "can't be sustained" and that the Iraqi government "needs to deal with it." But he said progress has been made. Setting a timetable for withdrawal "would be sending a notice to the terrorists that we're going to quit," Talent said.
The candidates also tangled over the Republican House leadership's response to the disclosure that former representative Mark Foley (R-Fla.) had sent questionable e-mails to teenage male congressional pages. House leaders have been criticized for failing to heed warnings that Foley's behavior was out of control. He resigned from the House when some messages became public.
"It is about holding on to power instead of doing the right thing," said McCaskill, who added that House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (Ill.) -- whose office has been questioned for its response -- should resign.
Talent was more cautious. He said he would await the results of an ongoing investigation. "We need to find out who knew what. We need to have a zero-tolerance policy for this and then let the chips fall where they may," Talent said.
On Friday, a USA Today/Gallup survey of 577 likely voters, showed McCaskill leading Talent 48 percent to 45 percent, with 7 percent undecided. The margin of error was plus or minus five percentage points.