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A year out, there's a method to the messages attacking Senate hopefuls

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 22, 2009More than a year before Missouri voters choose a U.S. senator, both parties appear to have comfortably settled on longstanding lines of attacks against the state's best known contenders.

That means would-be voters are going to get an earful of the same stuff over the coming months.

For Republican Roy Blunt, a congressman from Springfield, Mo., it's his support from corporate political-action committees -- especially oil companies.

For Democrat Robin Carnahan, Missouri's secretary of state, it's her alleged ties to the embattled, low-income activist group ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now).

Both state parties are investing a lot of staff time and resources to provide documents, statistics and video to bolster their verbal shots.

Earlier this week, the state Democratic Party highlighted Blunt's latest campaign-finance report and his status -- according to USA Today -- as the congressional candidate who so far has taken the most from lobbyists ($310,534, the newspaper reported).

Missouri Democrats zeroed in on Blunt's oil-company contributions of $5,000 from Marathon, $3,000 from Chevron, $2,000 apiece from Halliburton and Exxon Mobil, and $1,000 from Occidental Petroleum. (His critics also cited statistics from the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, which show that Blunt had received more than $400,000 from oil and gas companies during his congressional career.)

All fit in with the Democrats' continued message against Blunt.

"This is a perfect example of how Washington, D.C. insiders play the game," said Democratic Party Executive Director Brian Zuzenak. "All the work Congressman Blunt has done in Congress on behalf of big oil and other special interests is followed by their massive campaign contributions. When you look at how many lobbyists and corporations are funding his campaign, it becomes obvious that he has been in Washington too long."

Now to Carnahan.

Earlier this month, the Missouri Republican Party unveiled its new attack Web site -- www.acorncarnahan.com -- that asserts Carnahan "has maintained close ties with the embattled liberal organization ACORN -- furthering their goals and whitewashing their record of corruption and fraud."

The GOP (which claims close to 20,000 visits already to its website) is highlighting close to 2,000 pages of e-mails it collected from Carnahan's office, via the state's Sunshine Law, which includes some communications between her staff and ACORN officials when the latter was conducting voter-registration drives last year.

Spokespeople for Carnahan and ACORN say nothing was unusual about the e-mail communications.

Today, the state GOP followed up with a tape of Carnahan's remarks Wednesday night at the University of Missouri at Columbia, where she told students that she has no political ties to ACORN. (Carnahan has made such statements for months.)

The ACORN line of attack appears to mesh with the general Republican theme about Carnahan -- that she's too liberal.

"Robin Carnahan’s outlandish claim that she has no ties to the liberal group flies in the face of the more than 1,400 pages of communication exposing her cozy relationship with ACORN,” said Lloyd Smith, executive director of the Missouri Republican Party. "Despite Carnahan’s attempts to re-write history, the evidence is as incriminating as it is clear: Robin Carnahan and ACORN are too close for comfort."

Political science professor George Connor, head of the department at Missouri State University in Springfield, agrees that both parties are settling in on lines of attack -- but he sees differences in their aims and targeted audiences.

The GOP accusations against Carnahan and ACORN, said Connor, are chiefly aimed at "firing up the base" of social conservatives who long have disliked ACORN over the perception that its voter-registration efforts are aimed at helping Democrats.

But the ACORN flap is primarily an urban issue, Connor continued, and appears directed largely at urban and suburban Republicans. In Springfield, for example, he says he's seen and heard little from Republicans about their beefs with ACORN. Connor believes that's because ACORN isn't well known outstate.

The Democratic attack against Blunt is different, he continued, because attacking the congressman's corporate ties has "broader appeal" beyond the Democrats' primarily urban/suburban base.

Such populist jabs do play well with core Democrats, but Connor believes that the Missouri Democratic Party is primarily aiming its message at independents and swing voters all over the state, who so far might not be paying as close attention to the Senate contest.

The professor noted that the "Washington insider" theme is a nonpartisan approach. Last year, it was used in the spirited Republican battle for governor by insurgent candidate Sarah Steelman against party favorite Kenny Hulshof, who won the primary but then lost badly in the general election to Democrat Jay Nixon.

Connor's point: The Democrats' Washington-insider attack against Blunt may be used a lot statewide over the coming months. But the GOP's ACORN focus against Carnahan may end up being deployed more narrowly, primarily in the St. Louis and Kansas City markets.

Which means that state Republicans may still be working on a broader line of attack to launch later against Carnahan.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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