This Reporter's Notebook was written by CBS News producer Steve Chaggaris, who traveled to the Missouri State Fair to work on a CBS Evening News story with National Political Correspondent Gloria Borger on that state's tight U.S. Senate race.
A $10,000 ham isn't exactly the most obvious clue that you're at a state fair.
That ham - and every major elected official in the state of Missouri - were on display at the fair's "Governor's Ham Breakfast" early Thursday morning. As Republican Sen. Jim Talent, dressed in a short sleeve button-down oxford and khakis, and his opponent, the business-attired Claire McCaskill, worked the crowd, on stage was a charity auction for the state's "Grand Champion Ham," which pulled in $10,000 for the 4-H Club.
Any way you slice it, the U.S. Senate race in Missouri is one of a handful of races that are considered tossups for several reasons, not the least being the non-honey glazed, low popularity ratings of President Bush and the Republican Party.
Talent, who as the incumbent finds himself trying to swim against the tide of these negative poll numbers, repeatedly attempted to frame himself as an agent of change and against the establishment.
"I have been frustrated with the establishments of both parties," Talent told Borger amidst a sea of fairgoers and champion hams. "I haven't been satisfied by any means with the establishments of either party."
Later, as the temperature outside rose to almost 100 degrees and the scent of corndogs wafted overhead, McCaskill fired away at Talent - all but calling him a poster boy for the Bush administration.
"I think that they understand that Jim Talent has been a loyal Republican. He's been loyal to the president," said McCaskill. "At one point I said the White House ought to just take a room in Missouri, they're here so often helping Jim Talent."
In addition, McCaskill, like many Democratic candidates across the country, is framing her campaign as a national referendum on the Republican agenda.
"The Republicans - first of all, all the problems with immigration, all the problems with health care - they own them now. They control the government," she said. "They control the government in Washington."
Talent and other Republicans are taking the opposite approach, arguing that this year's congressional elections are about individual candidates in individual states or districts, not a sweeping call for ousting Republicans across the board.
"I think the voters look at the actual candidates they have in front of them who are actual people, who have actual agendas, and that's how they tend to make decisions, particularly independent voters," said Talent.
Missouri is historically considered a bellweather state and has a very powerful rural electorate, as evidenced by McCaskill's earlier loss in a run for governor and John Kerry's seven point shortfall against President Bush in 2004. Both McCaskill and Kerry spent a lot of time in the highly populated, Democratic, urban areas of Kansas City and St. Louis and, in effect, ignored the rural areas of the state.
This ignorance was not lost on McCaskill, who claims she's learned her lesson, perhaps explaining her near-daylong visit to the fair Thursday.
"I made a mistake. I actually thought that all the people in the state would know I wanted to represent them without talking to all the people in the state," said McCaskill. "I spent way too much time in Kansas City and St. Louis and not near enough time out in rural Missouri. And I've learned from that mistake."
Also playing a role in this race are two ballot initiatives: one, a plan to raise the state's minimum wage, the other to increase funding of stem cell research. Democrats and McCaskill hope that these issues, in addition to the anti-Republican sentiment, will be enough to persuade voters to elect her.
But therein lies the big question: which candidate will be able to turn out their voters? Will Talent's incumbency and rural base get him re-elected? Or will Democrats energized by high Republican negatives help McCaskill kick him out of office?
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