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McCaskill makes moderate pitch, blasts Democratic misstep over God; Akin disputes money woes

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 7, 2012 - U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill had a simple message for a group of business leaders who may be hesitant to vote Democratic in November: Give it a chance this time around.

“I certainly want to tell all of you that call yourselves Republicans, come on – it’s fine,” said McCaskill, after noting she had received support from business leaders across the state. “You’ll get over it. I promise you. Just this once, I’m hoping that reasonable Republicans realize that now is not the time for party labels.”

Speaking to the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association luncheon on Friday, McCaskill’s appeal coincided with a new ad highlighting her differences with Democratic President Barack Obama.

It also comes as her Republican opponent – U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Wildwood – is denying reports that he doesn’t have enough money for television ads.

(Start of update) On Saturday, McCaskill once again promoted her independent streak by lambasting a misstep at the recently ended Democratic national convention, where the initially approved version of the party platform failed to include the word "God."

President Barack Obama pressed the convention to correct the omission via a re-vote, which was done amid some floor acrimony that was caught on video, and subsequently has been widely circulated on the internet.

"It was a huge mistake and I'm glad the president got it fixed," McCaskill told reporters after a rally with supporters at a campaign office in north St. Louis County.

"I don't know who messed up, somebody messed up. But my party doesn't want to remove God from the platform, not the people I know that run for office. Almost everyone I've known in my party has been a person of faith, and so I think that was one of those big blunders that frankly I thought was embarrassing.

She earlier has said she voted in last month's primary in favor of the state's so-called "prayer amendment,'' which garnered 81% of the statewide vote. (End of update)

During her remarks Friday downtown, McCaskill portrayed herself as “part of that moderate middle that will provide the certainty that the business community so badly needs right now.” She noted to the dozens of representatives from some of region’s biggest businesses that she stood “before you very proud to be called a moderate.”

One specific example was her opposition to earmarks, a stance typically taken  by more conservative Republicans. She said she didn’t intend it to become a big issue for her after she was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2006, but it did so when she saw the process unfold.

“I didn’t campaign against earmarks,” McCaskill said. “I had no idea how it really worked until I got out there. And there were so many projects that were funded by earmarks in this community and in this state I love that I respect and admire. It isn’t as if my colleagues that did in earmarks in Missouri were wasting taxpayer money. But I can assure you that the process was one you’d find shocking.”

Indeed, Democrats and some Republicans – including Akin and U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. – support earmarks. During the primary campaign, Akin said that earmarking was a constitutional responsibility of lawmakers, and his campaign ran an advertisement defending earmarks in response to his two GOP opponents who had criticized him on the issue.

But, McCaskill said, earmarking often benefits people with seniority or power, as opposed to need. Even though Missouri has a confluence of two major rivers and “dramatic water needs,” McCaskill noted that half of the earmarks one year for water projects went to North Dakota and Utah. That occurred, she said, because the chairman and the ranking member of a subcommittee divvying out those projects were from North Dakota and Utah.

“I said, ‘I’m not doing this,’” McCaskill said. “This is the wrong way to spend public money. If we competed on merit, guess where Missouri would be? We’d be just fine.”

New ad highlights McCaskill's 'moderate' rating

McCaskill also discussed her role in regulating military contracts to prevent waste. And she also referred to National Journal's ranking her 50th on an ideological scale in its annual report on lawmakers.

“I think I’m the only candidate for the U.S. Senate in Missouri this year that wears the term moderate like a badge of honor,” McCaskill said.

Indeed, McCaskill’s campaign released a new ad Friday showcasing that National Journal ranking. McCaskill said she was ranked 50th because of what she called “Missouri-style independence,” noting that she voted to cap federal spending, fought regulations and opposed earmarks.

“I work across the aisle and I don’t think compromise is a dirty word,” McCaskill says in the ad. “That’s how we can solve problems for your family.”

McCaskill’s emphasis on moderation and independence has a two-fold purpose. One is demographic: Many of the state’s rural areas are typically more conservative, and Democrats running statewide have to appeal to these voters to be elected.

The pitch also could be an attempt to woo independent and Republican voters on the fence after Akin set off a firestorm over his comments on “legitimate rape” and lost the support of deep-pocketed third-party groups, such as the National Republican Senatorial Committee and Crossroads GPS.

Even though he apologized several times, many prominent Republicans demanded Akin leave the race. So far, Akin has ignored those demands. And various polls have showed conflicting pictures of where the race stands.

So far, none of McCaskill’s ads have included her support for the 2009 stimulus or the federal health-care law. Asked why, McCaskill said, “In Missouri, you don’t get elected by people who call themselves Democrats and you don’t get elected by people who call themselves Republicans.”

“In Missouri, elections are won when you convince independent voters that you’re looking after them. That you come first, not a party label,” McCaskill said. “So I think the fact that I am right, smack dab in the middle of the Senate in terms of liberal to conservative, I think that shows the independent voters of the state that I am willing to look after them and frankly not look after my party leaders or any other party leaders.”

In a statement in response to McCaskill’s new ad, Missouri Republican Party executive director Lloyd Smith said McCaskill said she “will not convince Missourians that she is anything other than a rubberstamp for the reckless Obama agenda.”

“Only in Washington can you vote 95 percent of the time with Barack Obama and still have the gall to consider yourself a moderate,” Smith added.

McCaskill questioned on health care

McCaskill took a question from an audience member who cited a study about how the costs of individual and small business health insurance plans would go up after the federal health-care law is fully implemented in 2014.

After she noted that many studies have reached an opposing conclusion, she said that small business coverage increased in Massachusetts after health-care legislation championed at the time by GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney was implemented. She also said it is “very hard to separate the political two-by-four of what this reform represents from what the factual reality is.”

“This has become such nitroglycerin politically,” McCaskill said. “I do think there are a lot of smart people that want this to work. I know that if doesn’t work, it will be changed. Because the only thing anybody was trying to do here was not go to a government health-care system, but to go to a free market-based system that would provide the proper incentives to stabilize health-care costs by getting more healthy people in the pool.

“If the market isn’t free enough because insurance is a little tricky when you come to just free market supply and demand, then obviously it will need to be tweaked,” she added. “Because obviously nobody wants to saddle anyone with a bigger problem than what we had before – which everybody in this room understands the problem was.”

She added that the federal bill was aimed at stopping people without health insurance from going to emergency rooms, which she said was driving up the cost of health insurance across the board.

“I think this was a thoughtful, moderate approach,” McCaskill said. “Because it wasn’t a public option, it wasn’t government takeover. If it needs to be tweaked, I will be first in line. I have no pride in this. I mean, frankly I may go home over it.”

Akin campaign disputes money troubles

While Akin was in Columbia Friday talking to a Republican club, his campaign was disputing a report from KOMU that his ads were pulled because of nonpayment. That story sparked a flurry of reports in other media that his campaign was having money problems.

Akin spokesman Ryan Hite disputed that assessment, noting in an e-mail to the Beacon that the flap amounts to “a technical issue.”

“Until most people are paying attention to the general election, it's our prerogative to change our ad buys as we see fit to make them more effective and efficient,” Hite said. “This is just simply our shifting around the ad schedules. To say that we are unable to pay is not only misleading, it's factually inaccurate.”

Later in the afternoon, campaign manager Perry Akin said the congressman's campaign is "exceeding our fundraising goals and has raised over $400,000 online alone in the last 20 days."

"This story is simply false," said Perry Akin in a statement, adding that the campaign wouldn't do any more business with the NBC affiliate. "Our television buyers have paid for every ad that has aired and even bought more ad time today. A political campaign, like an advertiser, makes constant decisions about where and when we want our ads to air. This is standard practice in campaigns across the country."

KOMU News Director Stacey Woefel said in a telephone interview that he "was confident the story was accurate.” The station reported that it had received half of the payment for Akin's ads and ran half of the ad buy. When the station did not receive the rest of the money in time for the rest of the ad cycle, it pulled the ads.

“Our reporter talked to a number of stations – ours and a number around the state,” Woefel said. “All of them had told her that they stopped airing those spots because the campaign hadn’t paid for them to go forward. And that’s what we reported.”

The station reported today that the Akin campaign had made its payment early Friday, and the ads have resumed.

McCaskill told reporters she doesn't see Akin having trouble running television ads.

“What is going on with Todd Akin’s TV budget remains to be seen,” McCaskill said. “I have a hard time thinking that Todd Akin is not going to be back out on the air soon. And I believe he will be. His campaign says he will, and I believe he will be. He’s had a robust presence on TV since he won the primary. And I believe he’ll be able to have a robust presence on TV.”

Beacon political reporter Jo Mannies contributed information for this article.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.