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Akin, McCaskill largely plow same field of differences during sharp exchange

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 21, 2012 - COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Beginning with her opening statement, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., swiftly sought Friday to attack the views and statements of her Republican rival standing a few feet away, U.S. Rep. Todd Akin.

“I’m in the middle. It’s just that he’s so far on the fringe, that’s where the contrast comes in,” said McCaskill, who highlighted during their first forum – as she has in her latest ad – her middle-of-the-road rating by the nonpartisan National Journal.

Akin, R-Wildwood – who’s rated as among the most conservative House members in the same survey – sought to cast McCaskill as in the pocket of President Barack Obama.

Her portrayal as a compromiser is “a stretch,” said Akin, and “takes a lot of guts” since she frequently has supported the president’s policies.

The two were joined by Libertarian Jonathan Dine for the trio’s first faceoff, held Friday before the Missouri Press Association.

With polls showing the Akin-McCaskill contest to be close, Dine appeared to be aware that, while he might not win, his vote tally may decide which of his rivals ends up in the Senate.

“I promise to keep the Republicans out of your bedroom and the Democrats out of your wallet,” Dine said, garnering chuckles during the 60-minute event, held at the association’s annual conference in Columbia.

The forum’s first question could have been the most emotionally charged, since it dealt with Akin’s game-changing statement, broadcast on TV last month, in which he asserted that in cases of “legitimate rape,” the woman victim rarely gets pregnant.

“I think Congresssman Akin’s comments open the window to his views,” said McCaskill. “He’s apologized for those comments but they say a lot about how he views things. I believe a rape victim should be allowed to have emergency contraception in order to avoid pregnancy. Congressman Akin does not.”

Dine observed that he was stunned to learn that Akin sits on the House’s science panel, but “fails to understand 8th grade biology.”

But Akin, who was posed the question first, chose not to respond to the controversy over his rape comment at all, instead bringing up the nation’s financial problems.

“I don’t believe this election overall is about talk,” he said. “It’s really about two visions of what America is.”

“Are we going to go down the path of Greece” and its financial problems, Akin asked, or “are we going down the path at that America always has been on? A path where we allow freedom, where we allow the American dream to flourish.”

McCaskill repeatedly said that she also supported cutting federal spending, but that she believed Republicans wanted to use the savings for “tax cuts for Kim Kardashian” while doing away with important programs for the middle-class.

“He wants to abolish the minimum wage,” the senator said, referring to Akin. “He wants to privatize Medicare, privatize Social Security. He wants to do away with the school lunch program … I don’t think that’s the mainstream.”

Akin countered that, in the case of Medicare, his aim was to offer the elderly “a choice.”

Akin accused McCaskill of portraying herself as “a hero of Medicare” when she has supported $716 billion in savings in the program called for in the federal Affordable Care Act.

If he’s elected to the Senate, Akin said, “my first vote will be to repeal that thing,” citing the overwhelming vote in Missouri in August 2010 on Proposition C, which seeks to exempt Missouri from some of the federal mandates in the Affordable Care Act.

McCaskill called the $716 billion dispute “the biggest whopper of this campaign season,” because the Affordable Care Act saves the money by trimming reimbursements to the insurance companies and to providers. “No benefits are cut.”

“If Missourians give this legislation a chance, they’ll be pleasantly surprised,” she said.

Dine opposes the Affordable Care Act.

Akin and McCaskill also tangled over other issues, including:

  • Congressional approval of a budget: Akin, like other Republicans, contended that the Senate has failed to approve a budget in more than three years. McCaskill said the Senate did indeed approve a budget in 2011, with language to that effect, in the measure increasing the debt ceiling. Akin said that legislation doesn’t count as a budget. Dine said that he supports a balanced budget amendment.
  • Farm bill: McCaskill said that Missouri farmers, like their counterparts elsewhere, are suffering from the House’s failure to pass a farm bill that offers drought relief. Akin said he would support passage only if the provisions that deal with food stamps and the school lunch program are stripped out and put into a separate bill. He advocates cuts in food stamps and believes the school lunch program should be shifted to the states.
  • Student loans: McCaskill defended the current system of offering government-backed student loans, saying that's the only way most families can afford to send their children to college. Akin said he wanted to go back to the previous setup in which banks provided the loans with government guarantees. McCaskill said that method was more costly to taxpayers; Akin contends that such a program is best handled in the private sector.
  • Foreign policy: Akin said that the Obama administration has been too soft on Russia, while “turning our back” on Israel. He advocated eliminating the $1.5 billion in annual aid to Egypt, because that country’s protesters have been “insulting us by burning our flag.”

    McCaskill cited her role heading a Senate panel that found “fraud, abuse’’ and wasteful spending in Iraq. In Afghanistan, “what we’re doing in terms of spending our money on infrastructure is wrong…we’re investing in highways, power plants, water projects that they cannot maintain, they can’t afford to sustain and many times they’re getting blown up … ” She called for shifting such spending to the United States, “where we need roads and bridges.”

  • Rural post offices and Saturday mail delivery: McCaskill called the U.S. Postal Service ‘’the best in the world’’ and said that Congress could easily resolve the postal service’s financial problems by doing away with the requirement that it “prepay” pensions and health care benefits for 75 years.

    No other business or government agency has to comply with such a mandate she said, and noted that the Senate has approve a bill dropping the mandate, but that the House has yet to follow suit.

    McCaskill then told Akin, “Go back to Washington, stop campaigning ... and help pass the postal bill.”

    Akin said that the postal service can fix the problem by increasing the price of stamps and other services, and said dropping the prepayment mandate might be irresponsible. “There has to be some kind of fiscal responsibility,” he said.

    Dine called for doing away with Saturday delivery. “We can wait until Monday to get our mail,’’ he said.

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.