Senate candidates Talent, McCaskill meet cordially at Missouri State Fair

Friday, August 18, 2006

Campaign trail includes must-do visit to annual political breakfast.

SEDALIA, Mo. -- There were no harsh words, no critical glares, just plenty of friendly banter and ham as Missouri's Senate candidates met Thursday at the state fair's annual political breakfast.

The must-do event for Missouri politicians took on extra significance this year because both Republican Sen. Jim Talent and Democratic challenger State Auditor Claire McCaskill are aggressively courting rural voters for the Nov. 7 election.

To enter the ham breakfast's huge tent, the hundreds of hungry early risers had to drive by dozens of Talent and McCaskill supporters waiving campaign signs and then walk through a gauntlet of others trying to give away lapel stickers.

Most shirts boasted either a yellow-on-green "Talent Farm and Ranch Team" sticker or a yellow-on-blue "Claire McCaskill for U.S. Senate" one.

"I don't think there's very many undecided votes here," McCaskill observed. "It's dueling stickers is what it is."

Crossing paths

The candidates, focused on maximizing their handshakes, crossed paths a couple of times. They talked cordially to each about their families -- with McCaskill forgoing her campaign criticism of Talent as a tool of corporate agriculture and Talent not mentioning his previous day's assertion that McCaskill would be detrimental to Missouri agriculture.

"This is the ham and egg breakfast -- politicians talk a lot to each other," explained Talent, a plastic cup of coffee in his hand. "For me, this is a chance to see the leaders of Missouri agriculture in one spot."

The rhetoric was to pick up a bit at separate state fair news conferences by the candidates.

Then Talent was to flip burgers at the popular cattle ranchers' restaurant while McCaskill searched for uncommitted voters on the midway.

"The way to get rural votes is to get out into rural areas, look people in the eye and explain to them that I'll fight for them," McCaskill said.

About 925 people bought the $15 tickets for the 2006 Missouri State Fair Governor's Ham Breakfast -- up about 100 from last year's rain-soaked, non-election year event, said fair director Mel Willard.

"We had a high turnout from a couple camps," said Willard, referring to the Talent and McCaskill campaigns, "but that's good -- that's the political system."

No one desiring to eat appeared to go hungry, even though caterer Katy Williams had prepared her ham, potatoes, eggs, apples and biscuits for a crowd of 750.

The breakfast is traditionally hosted by the governor. And Republican Gov. Matt Blunt used this year's event to tout his support for ethanol and value-added agriculture, announcing among other things a new policy of giving discretionary tax breaks only to farmer-owned ethanol and biodiesel plants -- not corporate ones. Blunt also praised the work of Talent and fellow Republican Sen. Kit Bond.

As further testimony to the power of the political breakfast, the leading Republican and Democratic vote-getters from the August state auditor primaries both made their first appearances at the breakfast.

"I don't know that there are agricultural issues with the state auditor's office," acknowledged Republican auditor candidate Sandra Thomas, of Kansas City, "but everyone here is a voter and we need to meet more voters."

Added Democratic auditor candidate Susan Montee, of St. Joseph: "It's just a matter of agriculture being an important part of the state. There's votes to be gotten everywhere."

Auction and fund-raiser

The ham breakfast also doubles as an auction and a fund-raiser for the State Fair foundation. This year's grand champion ham sold for $10,000 -- fetching $3,000 more than last year's but still $3,000 shy of the 1993 record.

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