House Race Is a Mirror of the Midwest Vote

Times Staff Writer

Congressional candidate Jeff Smith calls the president "a complete moron." He blasts the Bush administration's policies as "absolutely reckless" and "morally wrong."

But his most reliable applause line is this: "If [U.S. Atty. Gen.] John Ashcroft's for it, then I'm usually against it. That's probably all you need to know."

Smith is one of 10 Democrats campaigning for the House seat that retiring Rep. Dick Gephardt has held for 28 years. A political science instructor at two local universities, he's young, passionate and liberal. That played well to the mostly elderly voters at a wine-and-cheese house party in this St. Louis suburb last week.

But Missouri's 3rd Congressional District -- 75 miles from end to end -- is home to a diverse array of constituents.

It's heavily Democratic. Yet under the party banner there's a mix of rural, urban and suburban voters, of social conservatives and outspoken liberals, of unswerving party loyalists and middle-of-the-road Democrats who might well be persuaded to vote Republican come the general election.

The district, in other words, mirrors the demographics of Democratic voters across Missouri -- and across other Midwestern states also considered pivotal battlegrounds in the 2004 presidential election.

So analysts are watching the House race with interest.

All the candidates pay homage to the Democratic veteran Gephardt, who has not endorsed anyone. Beyond that, the unity dissipates.

There are four conservative Democrats on the Aug. 4 primary ballot. The leading contender in that group, state Sen. Steve Stoll, opposes abortion, backs a constitutional ban on gay marriage and voted for a bitterly debated new law allowing Missourians to carry concealed guns. Liberal opponents have said derisively that he should run as a Republican. But Stoll's positions are in sync with those of many rural Democrats -- the same voters President Bush hopes to woo in this and other key states, including Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Some pundits expect these conservative voters to be the deciding force in the 3rd District. "I think Steve Stoll's going to win this one," said Dave Drebes, who publishes a local political newsletter called the Arch City Chronicle.

But few are counting the liberals out.

Endorsed by former presidential candidate Howard Dean, Smith has honed a campaign speech that blasts the war in Iraq, Bush's tax cuts, the USA Patriot Act and the administration's proposal to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He appeals to the suburban third of the district, and perhaps to the blue-collar urban neighborhoods of south St. Louis.

"His energy, his enthusiasm ... I just want to adopt him," said Margaret Hasse, 79, a retired schoolteacher who supports Smith.

Another leading liberal, state Rep. Russ Carnahan, steers clear of red-meat rhetoric but pointedly uses as his campaign slogan "A real Democrat makes a difference."

In a 10-way race, Carnahan has one clear advantage: He has far and away the highest name recognition.

His father, the late Mel Carnahan, served as Missouri's governor and ran for U.S. Senate against Ashcroft in 2000. Mel Carnahan died in a plane crash three weeks before the election, but remained on the ballot and won posthumously. His wife, Jean Carnahan, was appointed to his seat and served for two years before losing in 2002. In his campaign for Congress, Russ Carnahan has emphasized his family's history of public service. And some analysts think that might be enough. "After all, he's the son of a martyred political figure ... with a name that's huge in Missouri politics," said Ken Warren, a political science professor at St. Louis University. Beating a Carnahan, he added, "is like trying to beat a Kennedy in Massachusetts. It's almost impossible."

Still, Jean Carnahan did lose the Senate seat to Republican James Talent in 2002. And Republicans, for the first time in half a century, control both chambers of the state Legislature.

That gives the GOP some hope for the 3rd District -- no matter which Democrat wins the primary.

"It's going to get exciting," said Bill Federer, the leading Republican candidate.

He has twice lost to Gephardt, never getting more than 42% of the vote. Yet he insisted that the rural Democrats in the district are increasingly willing to consider a Republican. "A lot of the social issues that have been in the background for years are coming to the forefront," Federer said.

St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke, for instance, has called it a grave sin for Catholic voters to support any candidate who favors abortion rights. Also, the primary ballot will include a proposed constitutional amendment against gay marriage.

Federer said he had received support from 20,000 donors nationwide eager for a Republican to seize the seat so long held by Gephardt.

Frank Roland, the Democratic mayor of the small farm town of Hillsboro, said it was not inconceivable that the seat could go Republican, especially if Bush picked up support on the social issues that resonate in the rural Midwest. "If Bush fares well," he said, "the Republicans could have a pretty fair chance here."

The ardent Democrats at the house party in Brentwood last week dismissed that prospect as outlandish. They fully expect their party to retain the seat in Congress, and hold on to it for decades to come. Gephardt, after all, served 14 terms. His predecessor served 12. Many voters expect that the candidate they select in the Democratic primary will be representing them well into the 2030s.

"That's why this is such an important decision," said voter Anne Wilding, 48. "We have to choose someone we can be proud of and have confidence in for a long, long time."

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