WASHINGTON -- Candidates in Missouri's hotly contested Senate race clashed Sunday over the congressional page sex scandal and the war in Iraq, with the Democratic challenger saying House Speaker Dennis Hastert should quit.
State Auditor Claire McCaskill said Hastert, R-Ill., and other GOP leaders failed to properly investigate when they first learned of former Rep. Mark Foley's e-mails to congressional pages.
"When a 50-year old man is asking a teenage boy on the Internet for his picture, the response needs to be something other than 'I better go tell the chairman of the Republican campaign committee,"' McCaskill said.
Republican Sen. Jim Talent said it was premature to demand resignations until a formal investigation is complete. The House ethics committee is conducting a probe.
"We need to find out who knew what, we need to have a zero tolerance policy and let the chips fall where they may," Talent said.
The Missouri race is considered a must-win for Democrats, who need to gain six seats to recapture control of the Senate. Recent polls show the candidates running about even.
Much of the candidates' debate Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press" focused on Iraq and national security. Talent described McCaskill's views as weak on fighting terrorism, criticizing her for opposing President Bush's domestic surveillance policy and for calling on Bush to redeploy troops from Iraq over a two-year period.
McCaskill, in turn, portrayed Talent's views as those of a politician who has spent too long in Washington.
Talent insisted that, had he been in the Senate in 2002, he would have voted to go to war in Iraq even if he had known that U.S. intelligence was wrong in concluding Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. He said ousting Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was necessary to eliminate him as a threat to the region, including any attempt to revive Iraq's nuclear program.
"If you support an artificial timetable for withdrawal, it's like Eisenhower saying after D-Day, 'Look, we're going to get to Berlin, but if we're not there by Christmas, we're going home,"' Talent said.
Asked whether the $300 billion spent on Iraq could have been better spent fighting terrorism elsewhere, Talent said the money represented just 1 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product.
"Clearly he's been in Washington too long if he doesn't think $300 billion is not a lot of money," McCaskill retorted. Brushing aside Talent's reference to World War II, McCaskill said, "General Eisenhower had a plan."
Knowing what she knows now, McCaskill said, she would not have voted for war. She called for military leaders to consider redeploying U.S. troops out of Iraq over the next two years or so, and said she agreed with the assessment of Sen. John Warner, R-Va., that Iraq is "drifting sideways."
On other issues, Talent defended his opposition to embryonic stem-cell research, which has become a major sticking point in the race. Missouri voters are weighing a ballot initiative that would amend the state constitution to protect all federally allowed forms of stem-cell research.
McCaskill, who has made her support for the research a cornerstone of her campaign, said the ballot measure prohibits human cloning and offers hope for future treatment of various diseases.
McCaskill would not apologize for comments she made last month in which she claimed that Bush had "let people die on rooftops in New Orleans because they were poor and because they were black" during Hurricane Katrina.
"I was acknowledging what Americans believed at the time," she said, though she added that she "probably should have said it another way."
Talent seemed a bit uncomfortable after Russert showed a series of video clips of Bush saying he supports Talent and asked the Senator -- who has voted with the president 94 percent of the time -- if he fears a backlash from anti-Bush voters.
Talent said he is independent and differs from Bush over immigration, farm policy, highway funding and other issues.
"Why don't they ever say in those surveys that the president agreed with me a certain percentage of the time?" Talent said. "I've been in public life a lot longer than he has."
Asked if he considered Bush a "great" president, Talent said Bush was better than Jimmy Carter, but "probably not" better than Ronald Reagan.
Russert then asked McCaskill if she thinks former President Clinton -- who has stumped for her -- was a great president.
"I've said he was a great leader, but I don't want my daughter near him," she said.
The debate Sunday was the second in five scheduled meetings between the two candidates, who debate again Wednesday in St. Louis.