Missouri's Affable New 'Go-To Guy'

Times Staff Writer

Even before Jim Talent took the stage at his victory party early Wednesday, the elated crowd waving pompoms for him in a hotel ballroom broke into a frenzied chant: "Swear him in! Swear him in! Swear him in!"

They won't have long to wait.

The Republican Talent, a former congressman, squeaked past incumbent Democrat Jean Carnahan, winning by fewer than 25,000 votes the right to represent Missouri in the U.S. Senate. His triumph will send him to Washington for four years, to finish out the term that Carnahan was appointed to in 2000 after her husband won election posthumously.

Under Missouri law, Carnahan's term will end as soon as the election results are certified. That should take about two weeks.

When Talent gets to Washington, he has a long list of priorities to tackle -- most of them neatly aligned with President Bush's agenda.

Talent promised Missouri voters that he would work to cut taxes, to build a missile-defense system, to ban most abortions and to open an Alaskan wildlife refuge to oil drilling.

He wants to push private insurance companies to cover prescription drugs.

He wants to shore up Social Security. And he wants to do it all with help from the Democrats -- even though his party will soon control both the Senate and the House.

"We're going to have to work together," Talent said in his victory speech.

It was a conciliatory ending to a bruising campaign. And it was, by all accounts, very much in character for Jim Talent.

In his eight years in the U.S. House, the 46-year-old lawyer with the folksy manner and sharp mind for detail racked up a very conservative voting record. He also earned a reputation as a genuinely nice guy, eager to get along with his colleagues even as he staked out positions that most Democrats could never support.

When he set out to unseat Carnahan, some pundits predicted the campaign would remain genteel, given both candidates' low-key personalities.

As it turned out, the stakes were too high for polite campaigning. National interest groups -- business for Talent, labor for Carnahan -- poured millions into the contest, airing acrid attack ads and staging huge get-out-the-vote drives in recent days, with volunteers going door-to-door in each party's strongholds, pleading with residents to make it to the polls.

Bush pulled out all the stops as well, making five campaign trips to Missouri, including a rousing rally for Talent on Monday.

Analysts credited Talent's victory to a strong turnout in rural Missouri.

Although he did worse than he had expected in urban and suburban turf, his message seemed to resonate in the conservative farm towns. So did his personality.

"In the end, he was a more engaging and appealing candidate," said Steven Smith, a political scientist at Washington University in St. Louis.

Talent ran a "puppy-dog Republican" campaign, Smith added -- "the arched eyebrows, the demonstration of empathy ... the compassionate conservatism."

A father of three, Talent featured his children prominently in his commercials.

He quotes the Bible readily and speaks with an easy, down-home demeanor; he dismisses the notion of weapon inspections in Iraq, for instance, with a breezy "Been there, done that, got the T-shirt." Promising to repeal the estate tax, he jokes: "Death is enough of a burden without making it a taxable event." On human cloning: "I don't want to live in a world where I'm walking down the sidewalk ... and see myself coming."

Under the affable slogans, Talent is known for his command of complex issues, especially national defense, health care and welfare reform. State GOP leader John Hancock predicted that, even as a freshman, Talent will become "one of the absolute leaders in the Senate ... a go-to guy for crafting policies."

That prospect has such Democratic activists as Bridgette Williams scrambling to assess what went wrong Tuesday -- and to figure out how to fix it, fast.

Williams, president of the Greater Kansas City AFL-CIO, vowed that her group would start looking immediately for candidates who could reenergize the Democratic base. Carnahan was proud to say that she voted with Bush more than 70% of the time. Williams hopes the next candidate the Democrats field will be proud to say that he or she fought the Republicans tooth and nail.

"If they ever want to get back in the game, the Democrats have to go back to their roots and rethink what they stand for," Williams said. "We've got to have candidates who are not afraid to speak out."

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