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Democrats straining for knockout punch

Two years ago, Democrat Claire McCaskill lost the Missouri governorship by about 80,000 votes out of 2.7 million cast.

This year, as the Democratic nominee against Republican Sen. Jim Talent, she appears determined to shake the hand of everyone who voted against her.

McCaskill is concluding this marathon campaign the same way she has spent most of it: in a bright blue RV careening not only through Democratic strongholds but also areas of the state that usually vote Republican. In the process, she’s highlighting the central challenge remaining for Democrats in a year when the national winds are blowing strongly at their backs.

Democrats have the chance for big gains on Tuesday because they are effectively competing for votes not only in places where they are already strong but also on terrain that has tilted toward the GOP, such as this small town about 30 minutes south of Kansas City.

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But the Democrats’ very success at invading such conservative turf frames the critical question for the campaign’s final hours: Can they close the sale with voters traditionally drawn to the GOP but unhappy with the nation’s direction and eager for change?

As much as anything else, the answer will determine the size of the Democratic gains Tuesday.

Democrats can probably recapture the House just by consolidating their hold over places already trending their way (like the Northeast and mid-Atlantic) and capitalizing on opportunities created by Republican scandals (including districts in Ohio and Pennsylvania). By converting the opportunities in states that fall into those two categories, Democrats also could capture Republican Senate seats in Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Ohio.

But Democrats can take the Senate only by breaking through in states such as Missouri, Montana and Virginia, where Republican defenses remain formidable. A big win in the House would require Democrats to overrun the GOP in conservative-leaning districts across states such as North Carolina, Indiana and Kentucky.

That means Democrats won’t maximize their gains unless they can cross the last mile with voters in right-of-center communities whose partisan and cultural inclinations usually bend them to the GOP in the end.

“Voters are creatures of habit, and their habit in these places is voting Republican,” says Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. “But there is also a tremendous desire for change, and those two sets of facts are colliding with each other.”

In Missouri, these cross-pressured voters will probably decide the Senate race, which has seen Talent and McCaskill run step-for-step in polls all year. “In a close race ... the people in the middle are going to be people who feel conflicted, so whichever way they go is going to be kind of soft,” said Talent, who won his seat in 2002 by less than a 22,000-vote margin. “It’s why you can’t predict.”

Like Democrats everywhere, McCaskill is expecting a strong turnout from core Democratic voters determined to strike a blow against President Bush. That passion was evident as she exchanged enthusiastic greetings with workers entering and leaving the plant during the shift change at a Ford Motor Co. plant outside Kansas City on a sunny afternoon late last week.

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McCaskill also seems certain to win big among socially moderate St. Louis suburbanites soured on the president. But with Talent also likely to generate a strong turnout from his base, the race will probably pivot on whether McCaskill can find enough disaffected Republican-leaning voters to reduce the GOP advantage in the rural and exurban counties that have fueled its advance in the state.

Harrisonville, which McCaskill visited a few hours before stopping at the Ford plant, is one place where she needs to improve. It sits in Cass County, traditionally considered a swing area in state politics. But lately, Cass has favored the GOP, with the party benefiting from its positions on social issues like gun control and abortion that Talent and his allies are stressing again this year. Bush won the county twice, and Republican Matt Blunt carried it over McCaskill in the 2004 gubernatorial race.

Conversations with voters in Harrisonville’s picturesque town square after McCaskill’s visit found most planning to follow long-standing loyalties in the Senate race. Scott Hampton, a Republican cattle rancher with a drooping mustache and black cowboy hat, said he was sticking with Talent because he considered McCaskill too liberal on social issues and too likely to raise taxes.

But cracks in the GOP defenses here were also evident.

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Dee, who did not want to provide her last name, wandered across the street from her office in the beautiful county courthouse to the McCaskill rally at a restaurant on the square. Dee has a son in the Navy and considers herself a conservative. In 2002 she voted for Talent. In 2004 she voted for Bush.

But this year, she plans to vote for McCaskill, partly because she is disappointed with Bush’s management of the Iraq war and his refusal to fire Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. “Bush has made some good decisions,” she said between puffs on a cigarette. “But he doesn’t know when to say he’s made a mistake and back off from it.”

The result in Missouri could well determine whether Democrats gain the sixth seat they need to claim a Senate majority. That seems fitting.

The 15-round struggle between Talent and McCaskill has been the heavyweight title fight of 2006. Each has proved skilled, resourceful and resilient, able to land a punch and take one. The winner will have earned his or her ticket to Washington and the opportunity to tilt the balance of power in the U.S. Senate.

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ronald.brownstein

@latimes.com

Ronald Brownstein’s column appears every Sunday. See current and past Brownstein columns at latimes.com/

brownstein.

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