ST. LOUIS – Missouri's battle for the Senate seat is a reflection of a national contest in which Republicans are trying to make national security and international affairs a key issue of the campaign while Democrats focus on domestic issues and fight off questions about their patriotism.
Those issues played out in Monday night's debate between Democratic Sen. Jean Carnahan and former Republican Rep. Jim Talent, viewed by a statewide audience.
Carnahan, the first-term senator who was appointed to fill her husband's seat following his posthumous election, exceeded expectations despite a few deviations from the questions at hand and some stammering responses.
Talent, who ran unsuccessfully for the governor's seat in 2000, hit Carnahan hard on her votes against President's homeland security bill.
"Ms. Carnahan voted against it and that's one of the reasons the homeland security bill ended up getting deep-sixed," Talent said.
Carnahan responded to the charges by reading from the Democratic playbook.
"What you have just characterized as my record is erroneous. That I was the first among the first to support homeland defense even before the president asked for it, the committee on which I served voted to support homeland defense. I was certainly disappointed that you would suggest or even doubt my patriotism on this issue," Carnahan responded.
Talent also accused Carnahan of being soft on national security by signing on late to a missile defense program.
"The other thing is we have to have a strong missile defense. It's important to protect our homeland; it's also important to protect our men and women in the field. The number one threat they will face in Iraq is missiles. I support the president's missile defense plan, I supported it when I served in the Congress. Ms. Carnahan voted to gut missile defense the week before Sept. 11 and voted to put it back the week after Sept. 11."
"I have also been for a very strong missile defense program, having voted for two of the largest missile defense programs in the history of our country," Carnahan replied.
Of course, the truth usually falls somewhere in the middle of the charges and defenses used in debate rhetoric.
When Carnahan referred to homeland security, she was referring to votes put forth on a Democratic plan that the president opposed and didn't emerge from the Senate, leading to some of the gridlock on Capitol Hill.
Carnahan did tackle Talent on the issue of a prescription drug plan, and accused him of trying to gut Social Security with a privatization plan.
The two did stray more than once from the question at hand, turning an inquiry about embryonic stem cell research into a discussion of cloning and abortion.
Carnahan also skipped over a question regarding Table Rock Lake, a popular vacation spot that has become polluted over the years. Instead she attacked Talent for being in with polluters and did not mention her proposal to clean up the lake.
Monday's debate was Carnahan's first, having been appointed by the governor to the seat after her husband was killed in a plane crash three weeks before the election. Republicans want to portray Carnahan as inexperienced and incompetent and have suggested that Talent's four terms in the U.S. House make him an articulate, able representative of the state.
That could backfire, however, as Carnahan tried to portray Talent as full of "Washington-speak" in which lawmakers say one thing and mean another.
Observers were keeping an eye on Talent, who had the potential of appearing too glib, too Washingtonian and too disrespectful of Carnahan, who is a widowed 68-year-old grandmother. But he overcame those potential liabilities, appearing knowledgeable on the topics and Washington deal-making.
With Carnahan down by six points, Republicans view Missouri as a pick-up state that could help them gain back the Senate majority from the Democrats, who hold the advantage by one seat.
The two are expected to debate once more before the Nov. 5 election, on Thursday during a forum in Columbia.
Fox News' Carl Cameron and The Associated Press contributed to this report.