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Carnahan goes on the attack as she kicks her Senate campaign in gear

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 7, 2010 - Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan chose Democrat Days in Hannibal this weekend to reinforce her campaign image as a rancher-turned-U.S. Senate hopeful, and to roll out her sharpest direct attacks yet against the best-known Republican for the post, U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt.

Saturday night's banquet tables were adorned with pictures of Carnahan in rancher gear and a horse. And the cowbody-hatted keynote speaker -- pro-Democrat commentator/author Jim Hightower of Texas -- delivered dig after dig at Blunt, called at one point "a 'blunt' instrument for business as usual."

But it was Carnahan who delivered the chief verbal volleys, repeatedly portraying Blunt, R-Springfield, as a purveyor of "D.C. doublespeak."

As evidence, she slammed his deficit-hawk talk, which she said was "bull" since his tenure in Congress had seen the federal budget "go from a $128 billion surplus to a $1.2 trillion deficit."

Blunt was traveling the state in a bus on his "Jobs for Missouri Tour," Carnahan continued, but "this week, he voted against the jobs bill."

Carnahan said that running the family's cattle operation in Rolla had taught her "to know bull when I see it. And there's a lot of bull running around."

Amid cheers from the packed ballroom crowd, Carnahan called on her audience to be "bull detectors for me."

Carnahan's aggressive address elevated her campaign profile, after months of being hammered by Blunt's campaign and other Republicans, who have accused her of intentionally staying out of the public eye to avoid scrutiny.

Carnahan disputes that narrative, saying in an interview that she has been campaigning in communities around the state for months, but that the public and the press often haven't been paying attention.

What is accurate, she said, is that Democrat Days in Hannibal is the party's traditional campaign kickoff -- and the appropriate place for her to kick-start a sharper message.

Calls to fight back

Even before Carnahan and Hightower took to the stage, the Missouri Republican Party had issued a released that called Hightower "a far-left firebrand" who, among other things, exemplified Carnahan's liberal ties and alleged links to controversial groups like ACORN. (She disputes any ACORN ties.)

But the real target for Carnahan and Hightower were fellow Democrats, many of them rural, who make up the bulk of the crowd at regional gatherings like Democrat Days. Many of them have been portrayed by analysts and activists as disspirited, dissatisfied and filled with discontent over Democratic-driven proposals regarding the economy, the environment and health care.

For those same reasons, Republicans have increasingly touted rural Democrats and independents as possible converts.

Ardith Simpson, a veteran Democratic activist from Shelby County, was among several at Democrat Days who said they believe many rural voters are confused about what's true, and what's not, amid all the charges and countercharges swirling in Washington.

But state Sen. Wes Shoemyer, D-Clarence, led a cadre of Northeast Missouri Democratic legislators who eagerly asserted that the public in their rural districts are starting to become more receptive to Democrats as they grasp the GOP alternative.

"People expect more from political officials than the constant bickering back and forth that they are hearing," said state Rep. Tom Shively, D-Shelbyville.

Two of the region's House Democrats -- Terry Witte and Rachel Bringer -- can't run for re-election because of term limits. Both gave emotional farewell addresses over the weekend, and Bringer sang. Both also squired around their potential Democratic successors, one of whom is Witte's wife. Allies noted that all three Republican House members in their region also will be leaving because of term limits, and said they represent chances for Democratic gains.

Shoemyer also delivered a broader message: "We're the party that cares," he said, as he emceed Saturday night's banquet. "It's not just about us getting 'ours.' It's about helping others get 'theirs.' "

But Carnahan's attacks, and those of Hightower, also fed another Democratic theme -- that it was time to fight back.

The crowd cheered when one of the Democrat Days organizers, Joe Frese, announced that the audience had helped him spot the Republican "tracker" who was in the back of the ballroom videotaping Carnahan's remarks for his GOP employers. (Democrats have a tracker following Blunt around as well.)

The young man initially refused to leave, saying he had paid the $30 ticket, Frese said. He was given back his money and escorted out of the hotel.

What was the proof that he was a tracker? "I asked him if he was a Republican or a Democrat," Frese said. "He said he'd rather not say."

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.