I'd call it a draw.
Sunday, Sen. Jim Talent, R-Missouri, and Claire McCaskill, his Democratic opponent in the U.S. Senate race, sat down with NBC's Tim Russert for a debate on "Meet the Press."
Russert began with questions involving the Mark Foley scandal. Talent hedged on whether House Speaker Rep. Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, should resign. "We need to find out who knew what. Let the chips fall where they may." McCaskill was unequivocal about Hastert resigning.
Then the conversation shifted to Iraq and the war on terror. Talent called McCaskill's positions on the issues "positions of weakness." Talent also said, "It's going to take (4-5 years) to complete our part of the mission: To train up an Iraqi army that's capable of doing for itself what it's now doing in partnership with us."
Russert pushed McCaskill to elaborate on comments she made about redeploying U.S. forces in the region over the next two years. Here's how she left it:
We need to give them notice. We need to tell the Iraqi government that we’re not going to build democracy at the barrel of a gun. It’s time for them to stand up and begin taking responsibility for their country.
It appeared Russert didn't have all his facts straight when he asked Sen. Talent about voting for the war in 2002. As we've noted here bfore, Talent was a candidate during the October 2002 votes on authorizing the president to use military force against Iraq. Talent didn't correct him and Russert didn't push him hard about it. McCaskill left herself room by saying, "I've never seen what (senators) saw."
Russert shifted the debate to stem cell research. The discussion wound up in an exchange over McCaskill and partial-birth abortion. I don't think the average voter will get a handle on where Talent is on the issue. Talent agreed with Russert's assertion that "people believe that research on the embryonic stem cell may in fact bring about a cure." But he still doesn't support the amendment.
Russert called McCaskill to task on her comments about President Bush and Katrina. ("George Bush let people die on rooftops in New Orleans because they were poor and because they were black.") She really hemmed and hawed around the comments before finally admittd, "I probably should have said it another way."
Finally, Russert sought to frame the race as a referendum on George W. Bush. He brought up the president's visits to Missouri (even a monage of clips of the president mentioning Talent by name). It appeard neither candidate wanted to bite on the issue. Talent mentioned aras in which he disagreed with the president (immigration, amnesty, security fence). McCaskill closed by affirming her independence and even snuck in references to Sen. McCain, Graham and Colin Powell.
To date, the least contentious of the MTP Senate debates. I don't think this changed anyone's mind nor was there enough here for an undecided to make up his or her mind.
Talent's terror/Iraq positions are in line with most Republicans. I'm really surprised I don't hear more Republicans offering some historical context for why it's important not to abandon Iraq at this point. The Looming Tower is a must-read on this subject. Islamic extremists have been embolden the last 25 years by the retreats of their enemies: Soviets pulling out of Afghanistan, U.S forces fleeing Somalia, U.S. troops getting out of Lebanon. They believe they can be victorious based on these triumphs. Further retreat out of the region will only give them more reason to believe they can accomplish their goals.
But I don't hear many Republicans articulating this. To casual voters, Iraq looks like a mess and politicians like Sen. Talent as saying things like, "I think the mission is going well. I think we’ve made an awful lot of progress." Then they get into semantics over what the mission is. Talent did a good job of defending that remark by outlining how he defines the mission:
The mission was to remove Saddam, and the threat that he represented, replace him with a democracy in Iraq that would be an ally in the war on terror, that would be able to defend itself alone, as we—it now has to defend itself in partnership with us, and whose very existence would be a rebuke to the terrorist vision of—for the Arab-Islamic world. Well, Saddam is gone, and the threat he represented is gone. The government in Iraq is not threatening Kuwait, it’s not trying to restart a nuclear weapon program, it’s not using oil revenues to sponsor terrorism throughout the Mideast, it’s not competing with Iran to dominate the region. We do have a government of national unity that represents all sections. We have trained up a highly capable army.
I haven't heard from McCaskill or any other Democrats anything specific about what would be different if they were in charge. "Listen to our military." "Give the Iraqi government notice." "Redeploy our troops." There's no contesting the mission itself - just how we get there. That appears to be how voters are being asked to frame the debate: Stick with current leadership or let someone else try.
As for stem cells, if you really pay attention to the discussions, it seems to come down to how you view cloning. "Human" cloning - that is creating an entire person from scratch - is banned under Amendment 2. Statutorially, the definition of cloning requires the implantation or the attempt to implant the embryo in a person. The problem is scientifically the definition of cloning is broader and includes the procedure that helped produce Dolly the sheep. As I understand it, that procedure would still be ok under A2. So supporters and opponents can throw around the term "cloning" all they want -- often they are not talking about the same thing.
In the context of the U.S. Senate race, Talent has been wading in murky waters for months. Voters are going to have to figure out for themselves how much, if at all, the issue matters when picking their senator.
So that brings us to Wednesday debate at Clayton High School in St. Louis. KSDK, KSMU and the Clayton Chamber of Commerce are putting this together. You can watch the debate at ksdk.com. Lots of issues out there for discussion both then and during the KY3 debate on October 16.
You can watch the debate again on MSNBC Sunday night at 9:00 p.m. Central. Or watch it here now.
The transcript is also available.