KANSAS CITY — Former State Treasurer Sarah Steelman said Saturday that she's leaning toward running for the U.S. Senate, making it increasingly likely that Republicans will have a top-of-the-ticket primary for the second straight election.
Steelman's entry into the race would set up a 2010 showdown with Republican Rep. Roy Blunt, who announced his Senate candidacy earlier in the week.
Blunt was a predominant presence this weekend at the state GOP's annual Lincoln Days conference in Kansas City, jumping from one speaking engagement to another while basking in the praise of incumbent Sen. Kit Bond and various other officeholders. Many attendees wore stickers proclaiming: "Roy Blunt U.S. Senate."
By contrast, Steelman neither was invited nor did she ask to speak at the conference. There were no Steelman campaign stickers nor signs and no Steelman hospitality suite for the guests. Instead, Steelman kept a low profile while visiting with Republicans outside the formal events.
After Bond announced in January that he would not seek election to a fifth term, Blunt moved quickly to position himself as a contender, and Steelman said she also was considering the race. Asked Saturday if she would run for Senate, Steelman said: "I'm leaning towards it."
Democratic Secretary of State Robin Carnahan already has announced her Senate candidacy and so far does not have any serious Democratic challengers.
Republican leaders would like to avoid a potentially costly and nasty primary that they fear could weaken their victor during a general election campaign for Missouri's highly targeted Senate seat. Democrats see it as one of their best shots to pick up the one seat necessary to give them a 60-vote, filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.
But Blunt and Steelman both have a history of engaging in primaries.
Blunt, then secretary of state, lost a divisive Republican gubernatorial primary in 1992. Republicans subsequently avoided primaries for their top spots until 2008, when Steelman unsuccessfully challenged Rep. Kenny Hulshof in a gubernatorial primary by casting him as a wasteful-spending Washington insider. In both 1992 and 2008, Democrats ultimately won the governorship.
Steelman seems prepared to wage a similar campaign against Blunt, who has been in Congress since 1997 and just recently stepped down from his Republican leadership role as House minority whip. On Saturday, she called him a "big-spending Republican," adding: "The public is sick and tired of Washington experience."
Blunt highlighted his experience in Congress while also denouncing the federal government's spending, specifically deriding the $787 billion federal stimulus law.
In a speech to the Missouri Republican State Committee, Blunt set his sights not on Steelman but on Carnahan, who also has criticized Blunt's tenure in Washington. Blunt challenged Carnahan to appear with him on three televised issue forums.
"I'll go anywhere, anytime and talk as long as Robin Carnahan wants to about any topic," Blunt said.
Carnahan spokesman Tony Wyche dismissed the challenge as a stunt.
"Roy Blunt probably needs to worry more about debating with his likely primary opponent than in playing political games 20 months out from an election," Wyche said.
It's that potential for Republican senatorial debates — and negative TV ads — that many Republicans would prefer to avoid.
Livingston County Republican Committee Chairwoman Louise Reasoner wore both a Blunt lapel pin and campaign sticker to Saturday's Republican conference, but she said she also has supported Steelman's previous statewide campaigns.
If Steelman enters the race, "I'd just have to give it some really careful consideration," said Reasoner, a retired public school administrator and goat rancher.
"She is not a Washington insider and, of course, Blunt is," Reasoner said. But "Blunt has performed very well in his leadership roles in the House, and she'd have a lot to learn."
Among those caught in the middle is former Republican Sen. Jim Talent, who also pondered the Senate race before opting against it. Talent wants a unified party and plans to endorse no one in a potential Republican primary.
"They're both friends of mine. I think they both put on a good race," Talent said. But "I think a primary would be very difficult and that they need to try to work it out. I hope they do."