ANALYSIS: Is a military campaign key to re-election for Skelton?

Sunday, August 29, 2010 | 5:05 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — U.S. Rep. Ike Skelton has launched a military campaign for Congress.

The west-central Missouri Democrat, currently in his 34th year in Washington, is seeking re-election against Republican Vicky Hartzler by emphasizing his commitment to military troops and veterans.

It might seem an odd tactic this year, considering most candidate around the country are focused on the economy or issues such as federal spending, deficits, bailouts, health care and energy policies.

But Skelton's early campaign theme reveals a perceived path toward victory in an election year that otherwise appears to favor Republicans. Skelton, the House Armed Services Committee chairman, wants to keep the political battle on his own turf, over issues on which he has expertise.

"Is it going to be the winning strategy in 2010? That's hard to say," said Shari Garber Bax, an associate professor of political science at the University of Central Missouri. "That's been his message every two years — it's just that we're hearing it more now because the competition is so tough."

Skelton faces a more difficult contest if Hartzler is successful in casting the race as a referendum on the Democratic-led Congress, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the national economy.

Missouri's 4th Congressional District — which includes Jefferson City and areas just to the southwest of Boone County — could be one of the dozens of races nationally that determine whether Democrats can keep control of the House. Although the National Republican Congressional Committee is not targeting Skelton with its first wave of TV ad buys, Missouri GOP Executive Director Lloyd Smith said he expects it will do so during its next round of ads.

Until then, Skelton has been laying a foundation for the race with his own TV ads.

His first two ads both featured testimonials — one from the mother of a Marine, the other from an Army veteran — about how much they appreciate Skelton's defense of the troops. The third ad, which began airing Aug. 18, questions Hartzler's support of the military.

Over roughly the past month, Skelton's congressional and political offices have put out over a dozen news releases, columns and statements highlighting his work on behalf of the military. Even the announcement of a coalition of "Small Business Owners for Ike" was framed in the context of them appreciating his support for Whiteman Air Force Base and Fort Leonard Wood.

"I'm downright proud of our young men and young women in uniform. I do my best to look after them, and I want people to know that," Skelton explained in a recent interview when asked about his military-centric campaign.

Having spent considerable money to win the Aug. 3 Republican primary, Hartzler hasn't yet run TV ads in the general election. But her preferred campaign theme already is evident. A news release Friday accused Skelton of "sticking like glue to Speaker Nancy Pelosi." In fact, Hartzler's campaign linked Skelton to Pelosi with news releases nearly every day this past week. On the one day it didn't, the Missouri Republican Party did so for her.

Skelton is highlighting the military "because he doesn't want to have to answer the questions about the economy and about his bad voting record 95 percent of the time with Nancy Pelosi," Hartzler said in a recent interview.

Hartzler says she, too, would be "a very strong advocate of the military."

Military matters may carry more weight in the 4th District than in the rest of the state. Of Missouri's nine congressional districts, Skelton's has the greatest number of military veterans — about 14 percent of the population, according to Census Bureau surveys.

The district also is home to Whiteman Air Force Base, Fort Leonard Wood and the headquarters of the Missouri National Guard. Whiteman alone employed 8,353 people and had an estimated $621 million economic impact on the area, according to a 2009 fiscal year report from the base.

Although not the norm this year, Skelton's military-themed campaign is not unique nationally.

Texas Rep. Chet Edwards, who like Skelton is a Democrat in a predominantly conservative district, also has based his re-election largely on veterans issues. This past week, he embarked on a five-day, 18-stop "Vets for Chet" tour.

In South Carolina, Democrat Rob Miller is highlighting his military experience while challenging Republican Rep. Joe Wilson. Miller's first TV ad features clips from Marines praising his leadership while deployed in Iraq.

Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat representing Washington, also aired an ad featuring praise from veterans. Last Wednesday, she held both an official senatorial event to discuss homelessness with veterans and a campaign conference call criticizing her opponent, Dino Rossi, on veterans issues.

But Republicans, who typically have stressed their support for the military, are banking that other issues will sway the vote this year.

"The economy is what this election is really about — it's about taxes, it's about jobs," said Smith, Missouri's GOP executive director.

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