"I'm not sure that that's a cheap shot, is it?"
Pity or praise Sarah Steelman, her current political position is a tad ironic.
The Missouri Democratic Party can't talk enough about her, while the top apparatus of her own party will barely acknowledge her.
The mood at this weekend's Democrat Days in Hannibal would've been beaming with optimism even without a potential GOP U.S. Senate primary in 2010 looming. But the prospect of a Sarah Steelman -Roy Blunt steel cage match was not only the quiet buzz during afterparty cocktails, but in plain sight on the Quality Inn stage.
Both Governor Jay Nixon and Sen. Claire McCaskill, the two top Democrats in the state, poked fun at the possibility. The message: We're united. They're not. And boy does it feel great.
To be fair, it wasn't too long ago the Dems were in a similar position. Claire McCaskill made her name by knocking off a sitting Governor in her own party in 2004. For a few hours in January 2008, Robin Carnahan sent smoke signals that she was at least considering the possibility of jumping into the race for Governor, despite Jay Nixon having staked out his candidacy years earlier.
These things come in cycles. But Democrats are walking a fine line. They clearly want to run against Roy Blunt, yet are dangling the candidacy of Steelman like a piece of red meat over a stray dog. A Democrat's dream: A knock-down drag out primary, but with Blunt the ultimate, if narrow, victor. Call it Hulshof, Part deux. Some Republicans hope: Blunt neutralizes the insider issue against "legacy" candidate Carnahan and rides an anti-Democratic tide. Another scenario: A perfect storm spurs a Steelman primary upset, and slingshots her candidacy of reform into the national spotlight.
"The Democrats know, and some Republicans even feel, if there's a tough primary, even if Sarah loses, it will be hard for Roy to beat Robin," says one Springfield Republican without an alliance yet.
So the Dems cynically stoke the fire, between each other and to journalists. "I think it's sexist what they're doing to Sarah. Telling her to run for Auditor," says one Democrat. "They're handling her all wrong. She should go for it," urges another.
Even McCaskill, who pledged to avoid "cheap shots," during her speech got into the game. "Alaska doesn't know we have our own Sarah," said McCaskill during her keynote address, in a joke that no one's really been able to explain to me yet.
When asked about the comment afterward, McCaskill's reply was too clever by half. "I'm not sure that that's a cheap shot, is it?" She then went on to favorably compare Steelman with Sarah Palin. (Watch the VIDEO above.) Funny that wasn't in the speech. (It's either a put down, or it's not funny, right?)
Meanwhile, while the Dems can only hope Steelman runs, Roy Blunt and his team have chosen to basically ignore her. The strategy: Put the focus on Carnahan early and often. Don't engage in a weekly back and forth with Steelman that could potentially elevate her. Frame the general election before there even is a primary.
But there is a case that both Steelman and the party could be handling a potential showdown better. The party made an error by not allowing or inviting their only prominent female to address the Lincoln Day dinner. Steelman made a mistake by taking her ball and going home -- dissing her own party's event and taking a small entourage downtown.
She could have agreed not to trash Blunt or Kit Bond and talk principals and accomplishments. They could have applauded politely and then left even more determined to work for Blunt.
Instead, the knives are slowly being sharpened behind the scenes with consultants and allies on both sides peddling the case against the other side.
For now, the divisions and apprehension sit in the G.O.P's corner, and the Democrats can't get enough of it. No matter who the candidates are, 2010 will be closely tied to the national political environment. As Chairman Craig Hosmer noted, the last time the Democrats controlled the White House, the Governor's mansion and both U.S. Senate seats in Missouri was 1964.
Translation: It doesn't happen often. Missouri can be politically fickle. The Show-Me State usually goes for balance. And Democrats should be careful what they wish for.