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With little time left, Senate candidates seek to control the chatter

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 19, 2010 - As Missouri's U.S. Senate candidates sprint into their final two weeks of campaigning, both are doing what they can to change any discouraging story lines. In other words, they're trying to change the conversation.

Republican Roy Blunt launched a new TV ad Monday in which he portrays himself as a defender of the federal Medicare program for the elderly and accuses Democratic rival Robin Carnahan of supporting "$500 billion in Medicare cuts."

Carnahan, in turn, released the results of a new poll -- conducted for her campaign -- that showed Blunt with a narrower lead (5 percentage points) than other recent polls have indicated.

Blunt's aim, in part, is to counter the attacks during last week's debates with Carnahan, who repeatedly accused him of opposing Medicare's creation and seeking to privatize Social Security. Carnahan's campaign also released video, press quotes and congressional votes that appeared to back up her point.

Blunt disputes and denies the assertions about his views of Medicare (getting particularly angry at Friday's faceoff at Lake of the Ozarks). But in any case, he is countering by attempting with the ad by tying Carnahan to the new federal health-insurance law. Part of the cost-savings comes from a projected $500 billion cut in future Medicare growth over the next 10 years. (Carnahan has said she supports the general aim of the new law, but believes changes need to be made.)

The downside in Blunt's attack is that it also brings up longstanding GOP efforts to curb Medicare growth. In fact, during Friday's debate, he mentioned his work in the 1990s to support a $40 billion curb in the growth of entitlements. Such entitlements, of course, include Medicare.

Carnahan's release of a poll has its own dangers. Aside from the fact that the poll conducted Sunday and Monday by Public Policy Polling was conducted for her campaign (a fact that always raises press questions), the details of the poll underscore her political predicament.

Carnahan spokesman Linden Zakula said the poll signaled that Carnahan is "getting out her message of creating jobs and putting Missouri families before the lobbyists in Washington."

But the poll, for example, also shows that a majority of those polled -- 53 percent -- gave her an "unfavorable'' rating. That compared to 45 percent for Blunt. Such facts, made public along with the results, certainly changed the conversation among political activists. The poll's mixed findings generated lots of Tweets late Monday from incredulous Republicans (notably Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, a Twitter addict) as well as supportive Democrats.

The polling firm's executive director, Tom Jensen, said in an interview that the poll showed that Carnahan and Blunt were both disliked by voters, a fact that could hurt both at the polls.

But Jensen also candidly observed (noteworthy since Carnahan is his client) that the poll showed that, even with the tightening race, "she's going to have a hard time winning" unless Democrats get more enthused about the prospect of voting. His assessment in the official release had been more optimistic.

Although the poll showed "some of that intensity gap closing," Jensen said that there needed to be much more for Carnahan "to have any hope of winning."

Referring to Blunt, the pollster added, "His advantage is mainly structural'' -- and less about issues -- because Republicans and like-minded independents long have displayed much more eagerness to show up at the polls.

Jensen's firm is polling for several Democrats in other states and is seeing similar problems with other Democratic candidates. The enthusiasm gap is even worse in Illinois, he said, endangering the chances of Democratic Senate nominee Alexi Giannoulias in his neck-and-neck contest against Republican Mark Kirk. PPP's polls also have shown that both candidates are disliked

By the way, Jensen sees the political future as being even bleaker for Democrats if the economy doesn't improve.

If the economy still lags in 2012, he said, "the Republicans could nominate Sarah Palin (who Jensen says is the weakest GOP candidate) and still have a 50-50 chance'' of defeating President Barack Obama.

Which explains why both parties are seeking to control the conversation.

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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