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Blunt faces West County GOP crowd somewhat wary of his Washington record

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 13, 2009 - For 90 minutes, U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt -- the best-known Missouri Republican running for the U.S. Senate -- underwent an aggressive grilling Thursday night from the suburban party activists who he acknowledged he'll need to win next year.

In return, he sought to sell himself as a tight-fisted conservative with modest roots and broad experience.

His standing-room-only audience at Chesterfield City Hall of the West County Republicans group included a sizable number who made clear -- although generally (but not always) politely -- that they weren't necessarily buying Blunt's pitch.

Several stood up to object to the Springfield, Mo., congressman's 12-plus-year record, which included supporting big-ticket spending items during the GOP administration of then-President George W. Bush, and now Democratic President Barack Obama.

Among the beefs:

-- Blunt's support for the first part of the bank bailout approved a year ago under Bush, and Medicare Part D, the prescription drug benefit that went into effect in 2006.

-- He also got jabbed for voting in favor of the "cash for clunkers" program earlier this year that offered federal aid of up to $4,500 to get older cars off the road.

The congressman countered by noting that he did not vote for second part of the bank bailout, the stimulus package or the auto bailout -- all enacted since Obama became president last January.

He also emphasized his votes over the years in favor of futile House efforts (which died in the Senate) to press for a balanced budget amendment and for a $40 billion trim in federal entitlement programs (such as Medicare and Medicaid).

Blunt appeared to come closest to winning over the crowd when he conceded the growth of government during the six years (2001-2006) that Republicans controlled Congress and the White House.

"We spent too much and we better have learned a lesson from that," Blunt said,igniting applause.

He added later, "I voted 8,000 times and I may not have been right all 8,000 times."

But what his audience needs to recognize, the congressman continued, is the alternative if a Republican fails to hold onto the U.S. Senate seat soon to be vacated by the retirement of Republican Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Mo.

"I think it is critically important to the country who wins this seat," Blunt said, contending that "we're sort of in a 'hinge moment'" when Democrats are close to wielding absolute power in Washington.

"I never have had so many say, 'I'm scared about the future of the country I love' and mean it," Blunt said.

The Democrats now controlling the federal government, he said, are even looser with the federal checkbook and "spend too much 'on steroids.' "

The audience was receptive to his assertion that the nation will be in dire straits if Democrats succeed in passing a bill that overhauls the nation's health-care system and puts in place a public option. Regardless of how it's constituted, such a program would overpower private insurers, he said, much like an elephant in a room full of mice.

The GOP's best hope, he said, is for its Senate bloc to block passage.

What the Senate and the country need, he continued, are more Republicans in the Senate who will "stand for the fundamental values of the country."

If elected, he pledged to do so. Among other things, Blunt called for turning off the spigot to the massive federal stimulus package approved earlier this year. He noted that less than 20 percent of the stimulus money has been spent so far.

"Let's just stop," Blunt declared, winning cheers.

And he also contended that Democrats fail to recognize the serious threats the country faces overseas from terrorists.

"The world is a very dangerous place and the president needs to understand that," Blunt said, implying that Obama -- now on a trip to Asia -- does not.

Blunt won cheers when he called for Obama to set a specific objective for the war in Afghanistan: "I think we need to insist that the president specify the mission, then we need need to get it done or get out."

He also touted his opposition to any sort of amnesty for illegal immigrants and made a general call for securing the nation's borders.

Throughout the evening, Blunt made a point of emphasizing his rural roots in southwest Missouri, from his childhood in a house without indoor plumbing to the region's conservative philosophy.

The part of the country where he comes from, he said, "is so conservative it believes that government should defend the government and deliver the mail" and not much else.

Blunt drew laughs when he added that lately, "we're not quite so committed to delivering the mail."

But his overarching theme for the evening: He may not be the perfect conservative, but he's better than any Democratic rival, notably Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan.

He also called for an end to GOP philosophical struggles. "This is no longer a debating society, it's about the future of the country," Blunt said.

And right before leaving, he underscored the crucial political role that the region's Republicans will play in determining his future: "I'm on your side, but I need you to be on my side."

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.