CLINTON, Mo. – At a beauty salon along Main Street in this small, western Missouri town, Debbie Cross vents her frustration over the lingering Iraq war, gas prices and a litany of other national woes.
"I feel like it's turning into another Vietnam," said the 48-year-old bank teller from nearby Appleton City. She voted for Republican Sen. Jim Talent four years ago, but says she's leaning toward his Democratic opponent, state Auditor Claire McCaskill, on Nov. 7 in the closely contested race.
Across the state, in Defiance, Lynn Tracy says Talent is in tune with her conservative values.
"He's fiscally more conservative and socially as well and I'm about as far right as you can get on most of those," said Tracy, 48, a stay-at-home mom.
McCaskill and Talent have returned to Missouri's heartland often this year in search of votes for a race that could determine whether Democrats regain control of the Senate.
Increasingly struggling to retain the Senate and seeing their chances disappear elsewhere, Republicans are placing all their hopes on holding GOP seats in Missouri, Tennessee and Virginia.
The Republican National Committee is buying television ads in Missouri and Tennessee as part of a strategy to limit Democratic gains.
For months, the Missouri contest has been a dead heat between Talent, a strong supporter of the war, and McCaskill, who wants Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld fired and U.S. troops in Iraq to be redeployed over the next two years.
Both candidates are projecting a centrist image as they appeal to voters nestled between St. Louis and Kansas City, an area widely viewed as crucial to winning the state.
"There are 114 counties in Missouri, and 109 of them are rural," said George Connor, associate professor of political science at Missouri State University. Even with strong support from the traditional Democratic base in the two big cities, Connor said, McCaskill needs to make a sizable dent in the GOP's rural base to have a chance at winning.
Talent, a freshman senator, is a low-key lawmaker known more as a policy wonk than a glad-hander. He is trying to keep his record of accomplishments from being drowned out by national issues such as the war and the House page scandal.
Every chance he gets, he promotes legislative victories, including measures to combat methamphetamine abuse, boost ethanol production and reduce prescription drug costs.
Talent carefully avoids mentioning President Bush in his ads or speeches, though the president and first lady have come to help Talent raise money. In one TV ad, Talent plays down his party affiliation and cites his ability to work with Democrats: "Most people don't care if you're Red or Blue, Republican or Democrat," he says in the ad.
When Bush came to St. Louis on Oct. 12 to speak to a renewable energy conference, Talent attended but did not appear on stage with the president.
"I'm running on who I am and what I've done," Talent said later. "I think that's what I'm going to be judged on."
McCaskill is casting herself in the mold of Harry S. Truman, the Missouri icon who challenged his own party to ask tough questions about war profiteering and corruption when he served in the Senate.
"The sad thing is, if Harry Truman were alive today and doing what he did in World War II, I'm afraid the Republican Party would call him out and try to say he was a coward or that he was a cut and run specialist," she told a group of supporters in Clinton this month.
One of her ads notes McCaskill's roots in rural Houston, Mo., and features her 77-year-old mother, Betty Anne, promising McCaskill will not forget where she comes from.
Calling the Iraq war "a mess," McCaskill accuses Talent of remaining silent during five hearings when Rumsfeld appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee, of which Talent is a member.
Talent says McCaskill has "consistent positions of weakness" on national security issues. He claims he has asked plenty of questions about operational mistakes in carrying out the war. He insists he would have supported the 2003 invasion even knowing what he knows today about U.S. intelligence failures, saying Iraq was a "developing North Korea in the Mideast."
Talent went on the offensive in two debates last week, alleging McCaskill's family might not have paid all its income taxes. McCaskill dismissed the charge as a "smear." Talent has called on McCaskill's husband, a wealthy real estate developer, to release his personal tax returns. McCaskill declined.
Talent won the seat with just over 50 percent of the vote in 2002, when he ousted Democratic Sen. Jean Carnahan in a special election. McCaskill, coming off a narrow loss in the 2004 governor's race to Republican Matt Blunt, is considered a tougher opponent than Carnahan, who was appointed to the seat in 2000 after her husband, former Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan, died in a place crash weeks before the election.
McCaskill has a plain-spoken, easygoing manner that helps her connect with voters. She acknowledges she can get into trouble sometimes when her comments have too much of an edge to them.
Asked during a nationally televised debate on NBC's "Meet the Press" if Bill Clinton was a great president, she replied: "I've said he was a great leader, but I don't want my daughter near him."
"I think some people thought that that quip was disrespectful and I regret that," she said later in an interview.
Talent has outraised McCaskill, $12.6 million to $7.3 million, but the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has helped her with a pledge to spend up to $6 million on ads.
Democrats believe McCaskill may get a boost from a statewide ballot measure that would guarantee embryonic stem cell research can occur in Missouri. McCaskill has championed the measure, favored by 58 percent of voters according to a recent poll. Talent, a longtime abortion opponent, came out against the measure.