Issues, Turnout Dominate Closest of Senate Races

Sen. James M. Talent, with wife Brenda and son Mike in Poplar Bluff, is counting on a robust rural turnout.
Sen. James M. Talent, with wife Brenda and son Mike in Poplar Bluff, is counting on a robust rural turnout. (By Scott Olson -- Getty Images)
Monday, November 6, 2006

ST. LOUIS -- It was hard to tell who looked wearier exiting the blue RV-camper at yet another fire station this weekend -- Claire McCaskill, the Democrat challenging Sen. James M. Talent (R), or the three local reporters sharing the cramped, rolling quarters for her 20-stop, all-night campaign tour of the St. Louis area.

But the mere fact that McCaskill was welcoming media scrutiny and still showing a little bounce in her step was among the signs that gave Democrats hope in this Senate race, the most stubbornly deadlocked of them all.

Talent, who has won and lost agonizingly close races in Missouri, has appeared to endure the campaign more than enjoy it, barring reporters from traveling with him and wistfully saying he wished it were over so he could "get back to work." Even his final-week big push -- two stops by President Bush on Friday -- mixed awkwardness with celebration because Talent has spent much of the campaign touting his independence from Bush and the Republican Party.

McCaskill, the state auditor and narrow loser of the 2004 gubernatorial race, has couched the Senate campaign mainly as a referendum on Bush and the Iraq war. She said the president's visits to Joplin and Springfield probably helped her as much as they did Talent. "It reminds Missourians just how closely he is aligned with Bush," she said during a stop at the Engine 5 Firehouse, in a poor and bleak neighborhood on the city's east side.

Talent, a social conservative who opposes abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research, is counting on big voter turnouts in the state's rural areas and small cities. On Sunday, while McCaskill was visiting black churches and hosting Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) at an outdoor rally in St. Louis, Talent was making airport stops in Poplar Bluff, Cape Girardeau and Rolla.

A new poll published by the Kansas City Star showed McCaskill leading Talent 46 to 45 percent -- well within the survey's margin of error, and typical of the campaign's neck-and-neck polls since Labor Day.

-- Charles Babington

© 2006 The Washington Post Company