The first name of Missouri Democratic Senate candidate Nancy Farmer was incorrect in an Oct. 24 article about the Missouri governor's race. (Published 10/25/04)

Claire McCaskill wants everyone to know that she's much older than Matt Blunt, her rival for the Missouri governor's office. The Democrat tells voters she ran a small business, reared a family and served six years as a prosecutor before she reached the legislature and statewide office.

Oh, and did she mention that she's much older than Blunt?

"First, I want to take an opportunity to congratulate Matt and Melanie on expecting their first child," McCaskill, 51, said during a televised debate last week, shortly after mentioning her 17-year-old son. "It's something we have in common. I was expecting my first child when I was 33 years old."

The audience laughed at the transparent play.

Competing in a state where President Bush is running strongly, and one in which seven in 10 voters supported an anti-gay marriage amendment that she opposed, McCaskill considers it crucial to make Blunt appear callow.

Blunt, a youthful Naval Academy graduate and secretary of state, may be less experienced, but he has smarts and advantages that have helped keep the race a tossup. His father, Roy Blunt, is the well-known majority whip in the U.S. House, and his grandfather was a state representative.

Mimicking Bush's positions, Blunt has crafted a campaign to appeal to Missouri's most motivated conservatives. He talks about trial lawyers, taxes and "renegade judges." Asked to name three people to whom he looks for advice, he named his wife, his mother and God.

"We share the same values," Bush said here Oct. 9 in helping Blunt raise $750,000. "We stand for a culture of life, in which every person matters and every being counts. We stand for marriage and family, which are the foundations of our society. We believe in the power of faith, and we stand with the armies of compassion."

McCaskill, by contrast, has kept her distance from the candidate at the top of the Democratic ticket, Sen. John F. Kerry. The Kerry campaign, trailing in the polls, has all but surrendered Missouri. But Democrats who feared that McCaskill, the state auditor, would be swamped by a Bush landslide in the state have been buoyed by Kerry's performance.

"Everybody's predicting that Missouri will go to President Bush, but I'm still giving even money to McCaskill," said George Connor, political science professor at Southwest Missouri State University. "Bush will win in Missouri, but if the trend isn't big enough, the coattails aren't long enough."

McCaskill won a bitter and expensive primary against Gov. Bob Holden, the first time in a decade that an incumbent governor anywhere in the country had lost a primary. She polled surprisingly well in rural areas where Republicans are predominant, although her strongest support on Nov. 2 is expected to come from St. Louis and her home turf of Kansas City.

In poll matchups with Blunt, she has an overwhelming advantage among African Americans, while he leads among the larger white population. His strength is greatest in St. Charles County and Springfield, where he taps worries about taxes and regulation and draws on endorsements from such groups as the Missouri Chamber of Commerce.

McCaskill is part of a record-setting year for women on the Missouri ballot. Four of the six women running statewide are Democrats, including Sandra Farmer, who is trailing in her bid to deny Christopher S. Bond a fourth Senate term. Another is Robin Carnahan, daughter of Mel Carnahan, who died in a plane crash in October 2000 and posthumously defeated John D. Ashcroft for the Senate.

On the stump, McCaskill talks about education and health care, as well as government discipline, pointing to her record of aggressive state audits of education funds and child welfare programs. She cites her experience as Jackson County prosecutor, boasting that she put more people in the penitentiary than any other.

The two well-funded candidates, who have torn into one another in broadcast advertisements, differ on what conservatives label a values agenda. Blunt criticized McCaskill for not opposing late-term abortions, although McCaskill said she does oppose them, provided there is an exception for the health of the woman.

Both have been treading carefully on the issue of embryonic stem cell research, which in Missouri cuts different ways. To some, it is seen as a measure of a candidate's views on abortion. To others, notably a Kansas City business community seeking to expand a bio-science sector, it tests a commitment to science and jobs.

McCaskill said last week that she would "veto any bill to criminalize research in this state to save lives," adding that she hoped to prevent it from becoming a wedge issue by educating voters on the difference between "inappropriate cloning" and useful stem cell research.

Blunt said he favors "responsible research." Like McCaskill, he avoided specifics, but he has borrowed a riff from the Bush campaign in castigating his Democratic opponent for failing to share what he describes as Missouri's mainstream values.

"You know," McCaskill said in response, echoing a line familiar to Democrats across the land, "social issues have a place, but we need to make sure that we're fair and not try to be judgmental about each other. These are matters of conscience and we can disagree, but that doesn't mean we should let them divide us."

The race is so close, said David Webber, political science professor at the University of Missouri, that ground troops will play an important part. That, and voters' views of McCaskill's experience advantage and Blunt's ability to surmount it.

"Leadership and competence is probably more important than any issues," Webber said. "I think it's going to come down to turnout in St. Louis and Kansas City versus St. Charles and Springfield."

Did someone mention age and experience?

In her closing statement last week, McCaskill just happened to mention that, "Yes, I'm 51 years old, and Matt Blunt is 33. . . . I've learned an awful lot since I was 33 years old."

Democrat Claire McCaskill, 51, squares off in a debate against Republican Matt Blunt, 33, in a Missouri governor's race that's been called a tossup.