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Talent Positioning for Rematch Against McCaskill

Talent Positioning for Rematch Against McCaskill

By Erin McPike - November 11, 2010

Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, one of the most recognizable first-term members in the upper chamber, may find herself in a fierce rematch against Republican former Sen. Jim Talent when she seeks re-election in 2012.

At least four well-known Republicans in Missouri are exploring the race against McCaskill, but GOP operatives say Talent is farthest along and has been positioning for another run ever since he stood down in early 2009 when Rep. Roy Blunt decided to pursue the seat GOP Sen. Christopher (Kit) Bond is vacating in January.

Sarah Steelman, a former state treasurer who lost a primary bid for governor in 2008, is exploring a run, too. Talent, Steelman, Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder and Blunt campaign chairwoman Ann Wagner all have contacted the Missouri Republican Party already about running statewide in 2012, according to the party's executive director, Lloyd Smith. Kinder instead may run against Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon.

In an interview on Thursday, Talent said of the Senate race, "I am looking very carefully and very seriously at it."

"I think it's all-hands-on-deck time for the country," he said. "Everybody has to look and see what they can do."

Talent said that he will take some time over the holidays to consult his family and others about the race and intends to make a decision quickly.

A cadre of former Talent aides stands ready to support a Talent campaign and is promoting his potential candidacy. While Talent said he's not ready to say yet that he's definitely in the race, he pointed out that he has traveled the state campaigning for Republicans in the midterm elections.

"I've been very active in Missouri," he said. "I enjoy doing it."

As for his next potential Senate race, Talent said, "It's something I know I can do." He added, "I've been through this before, and I know what it takes."

Gregg Keller, a top campaign aide to Talent in the past, said, "My personal sense is that when it comes to the 2012 Senate race, Jim is the 800-pound gorilla in the room. I believe that a lot of people are going to wait and see what Talent decides to do, if anything, in 2012 before making their own plans."

Talent, who lost one of the closest Senate races in the country in the Democratic wave of 2006, has been getting encouragement for the past year from Republican leaders and voters throughout the Show Me State to seek his old Senate seat, and Missouri GOP operatives believe that it's more likely than not that he'll run.

The former senator, now a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, joined former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's presidential bid in the 2008 campaign cycle as domestic policy adviser and assisted the presidential contender for his latest book, "No Apology: The Case for American Greatness." Sources on the Romney campaign speculated that if Romney reached the White House, Talent would have been a top contender for chief of staff, although he said he never engaged in those discussions.

He acknowledged that he wouldn't be able to do as much for Romney in the coming presidential cycle and would have to run his own race if he decides to run. "But I'm supporting Gov. Romney," Talent said. "I would love to be able to serve in office in some capacity with Romney as president."

Steelman, who like Talent, considered running for the open Senate seat in 2010, is looking at a few races in Missouri right now. She is a financial consultant and has been teaching political science courses at Missouri State University.

"I love public service," she said in an interview on Thursday. "I would like to get back involved in serving the state of Missouri in some capacity."

Steelman declined to offer a timeline for her decision.

"I'm listening to voters in the state and hearing what they have to say," she said. "If I can serve my state and my country, I'd like to do so." She added, "I'll know when that decision time comes. Right now I just want to talk to voters and get their opinion on how best I can serve the state."

Pressed on what race she's leaning toward, Steelman said, "I'm looking at both: A statewide race and the U.S. Senate."

Asked if she would be deterred from the Senate race if Talent jumped in early next year, Steelman said, "Nothing is going to deter me. I'm going to do what I think is best for the state and the country."

Steelman and Talent said they are friends and speak regularly, and that they both have talked to Wagner and Kinder. Wagner said this week that she is seriously considering the Senate race, although she said what she does in the next two years will be based on what Talent and Kinder do.

A spokesman for Kinder declined to discuss the lieutenant governor's options at this point in the cycle, but the state GOP's Smith said that while Kinder may be looking at other statewide options, he has been most active in exploring a gubernatorial bid.

If Kinder ran for governor, one of the other interested Republicans may run for lieutenant governor, and Talent said the quartet may have to discuss how they sort through the ticket. In addition to the governorship, three other statewide offices up in 2012 are held by Democrats.

"I visit regularly with all of these folks," Talent said. He said he hopes they can sort through all of the races and put together a strong ticket to compete with what he knows will be a tough ticket on the Democratic side.

President Obama narrowly lost Missouri to Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain in the 2008 presidential race, and he's traveled to the state a number of times in an early push to be competitive there in 2012.

Nevertheless, Obama's popularity has slipped precipitously in Missouri, and Democrats performed poorly there last week.

Republican operatives already have a playbook and a TV ad in mind for the race against McCaskill. Not surprisingly, they plan to cast her as inextricably linked to President Obama.

One Missouri campaign veteran pointed to a photo of McCaskill gazing at Obama on his campaign plane in 2008 and suggested that a TV spot would be made to highlight the image.

Talent said in the interview that he believes the federal government "is going the wrong direction" and offered a handful of economic policies to support his case. "Sen. McCaskill has supported all of that," he said.

Said Steelman, "The results of 2010 indicate that people want something different than Obama and McCaskill are giving them. There couldn't be a better example than Obamacare."

She added, "All the president can talk about is how this is a communication problem. This is not a communication problem. People don't like it. They understand it."

An aide to McCaskill noted that while the senator expects a tough election two years from now, "I think she feels optimistic at this point."

"Obviously a lot can change in two years. We don't know what the climate will be in two years, but she feels very good about her moderate record in the Senate," the aide said, and continued, "Although she supported Obama in 2008 and very vocally, that does not mean that she hasn't been willing to break with Obama.... She's not someone who is scared to challenge leadership and her own party."

The aide noted that McCaskill refuses to earmark and can be viewed as more fiscally responsible than many Republicans. During the debate over the stimulus, McCaskill scolded her party for including provisions that gave Republicans "ammunition."

And she offered an amendment with Alabama GOP Sen. Jeff Sessions to cap discretionary spending, which her advisers say will be a key part of her economic message in the next two years.

Erin McPike is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at emcpike@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ErinMcPike.

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