JEFFERSON CITY — When longtime Sen. Kit Bond announced six months ago that he was done running for office, Missouri Republicans splintered in a competitive scramble to replace him.
Rep. Roy Blunt has emerged as the leader — the result of thousands of handshakes at local GOP luncheons, a furious fundraising drive and some behind-the-scenes negotiations that racked up endorsements from almost every Republican state officeholder.
Although he may still face a primary, Blunt is turning his attention to an expected November 2010 matchup with Democratic Secretary of State Robin Carnahan. Of the 36 Senate seats up for election, Missouri's is among the most closely contested as Republicans seek to make a dent in the Democrats' 60-seat, filibuster-proof majority.
The Senate race in a swing state with a fiscally conservative bent could provide a critical mid-term evaluation for President Barack Obama's efforts to stimulate the economy, expand health care coverage and encourage renewable energy.
Republicans already have crafted a campaign theme: "the growth of the federal government, the intrusion of it into every aspect of Americans' personal and business lives," according to Lloyd Smith, executive director of the Missouri Republican Party.
But some Republicans have questioned whether Blunt is the best candidate to deliver that message. He's a 12-year incumbent who was the Republican House whip at a time when the GOP presided over its own expansion of federal deficit spending.
That creates a natural rebuttal to the Republican message for Carnahan's campaign. And that's what led former Sen. John Danforth, a senior Republican statesman in Missouri, to join some powerful GOP donors in courting a political unknown — former State Department official Tom Schweich — as a potential alternative to Blunt.
"It's worth thinking about somebody who's not been in Washington," Danforth told The Associated Press last month.
But two days later, Schweich and Danforth both endorsed Blunt, joining a list of backers that includes Bond, a majority of Missouri's Republican lawmakers, Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, and former Sens. John Ashcroft and Jim Talent.
Late last month, the National Republican Senatorial Committee also endorsed Blunt, a signal that a hotly contested Republican primary seemed unlikely.
After a weaker than expected fundraising start, Blunt raked in more than $1.4 million from April through June, putting him ahead of Carnahan in available cash. Carnahan raised about $1 million in the period, matching her total from the first quarter.
No other potential Republican Senate candidate raised any money.
State Sen. Chuck Purgason, a fiscal conservative from rural southern Missouri, is expected to announce his candidacy Thursday for U.S. Senate. But he has scant name recognition and no statewide campaign network. Former Treasurer Sarah Steelman, who said in February that she was leaning toward running, told the AP recently that she still has not ruled it out. But other Republicans say she appears increasingly unlikely to run.
Republican consultant Jeff Roe, who ran Steelman's unsuccessful 2008 gubernatorial campaign, recently joined Blunt's backers. Roe said Blunt has consolidated Republican support through "a retail-politics approach." Since announcing his candidacy in February, Blunt has attended scores of events in 32 counties and the city of St. Louis.
"He's gone handshake to handshake, parade to parade, boardroom to boardroom, small business to small business" to broaden his support beyond his southwest Missouri district, Roe said.
Although she recently took a 10-day vacation to the Middle East, Carnahan has said she also has been busy on the campaign trail, visiting 13 counties and St. Louis in the past several weeks.
Blunt already is honing his campaign against Carnahan, highlighting his opposition to the Democrats' proposed government-run health care plan and a House-passed climate-control bill that could increase energy costs for carbon-emitting coal plants, of which Missouri has many. Blunt casts Carnahan as a supporter of both plans, which he says would hurt Missouri residents and businesses.
Carnahan says she is "open to discussing" a government health insurance option because private insurers aren't offering competitive prices. Without taking a position on the House bill, Carnahan said she could "support some kind of cap-and-trade" energy policy so long as it doesn't unduly penalize consumers.
She describes Blunt as "entrenched in Washington," a characterization that Purgason could embrace if he mounts an outsider challenge in an August 2010 Republican primary.
"There is just such a disconnect with Washington and the people we've had elected in office," Purgason said. "It's not just a Republican thing; I've talked with Democrats that are just as frustrated with the direction they're going."
Blunt says he doesn't think Purgason's candidacy would hurt his campaign.
"I think we're going to be able to stay focused on the real job here, which is the comparison to Robin Carnahan and what happens if she gets elected vs. what happens if I get elected," Blunt said.