JEFFERSON CITY — Robin Carnahan is on the attack in Missouri's U.S. Senate race.
If that wasn't clear from campaign commercials over the past few months, the Democratic nominee made it obvious this past week in a pair of debates with her Republican rival, U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt.
Thursday in Kansas City and again Friday at the Lake of the Ozarks, Carnahan was the first to directly criticize her opponent and also the most frequent aggressor during the debates. By Friday, it was clear that her barbs were starting to get under the skin of Blunt, who fired back with a few of his own.
That a political campaign would become especially confrontational in the final few weeks before an election is not that unusual. But political scientists often take note of who is the most aggressive when gauging a race.
As a general rule, "candidates that feel like they're going to win the election don't usually go on the attack as often," said Beth Miller, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
Put another way: "Very often, when a candidate is in a debate and takes that negative of an approach, it means they are either behind or perceive themselves to be behind in the polls, and are trying to catch up or bring the other candidate down a notch," said Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
That political science theory seems to conform with Missouri's Senate race, where polls have shown Carnahan trailing Blunt though not out of striking range.
Carnahan used her opening statements in the debates to accuse Blunt of backing corporate bailouts, wasteful earmark spending, privatizing Social Security, giving special favors to lobbyists and supporting tax breaks that ship jobs overseas. She kept up the attacks throughout the debates.
On Friday, Carnahan referred to Blunt personally at least 75 times during a debate that lasted a little less than an hour. Some times she called him "Congressman Blunt." Other times, she just called him "congressman." And Carnahan — seated within arms reach of Blunt — referred to Blunt repeatedly with the words such as "you" and "your" and "he" and "him" and "his." In fact, Carnahan found a way to directly reference Blunt in every question or rebuttal opportunity provided during the debate.
Blunt referred directly to Carnahan 23 times during Friday's debate, according to a count by The Associated Press that could be off by a few because the candidates occasionally talked over the top of each other as their accusations became more heated. Blunt referred to Carnahan by her first and last name, as "Secretary Carnahan," and with words such as "you" and "your" and "she" and "her."
Very seldom did Carnahan or Blunt use pronouns to describe each other in a positive way — not even when asked if they could think of just one nice thing to say about their opponents.
Constitution Party candidate Jerry Beck went first, praising Blunt as "very nice looking gentlemen" and good dresser and complimenting Carnahan as "beautiful."
Blunt avoided saying anything specifically nice about Carnahan, instead generically complimenting everyone on the Senate debate stage, including Beck and Libertarian Jonathan Dine.
"Anybody who participates in the process, I have respect for," Blunt said, referring to people who run for office. "All three of these people have chosen to do that."
Carnahan did compliment Blunt, but in a backhanded way.
"He did some good things as secretary of state," Carnahan, Missouri's current secretary of state, said in reference to Blunt's prior job in the 1980s and early 1990s. "When he was here in Missouri, he was a terrific public servant. He did a lot of good things for us, which is why I'm disappointed that it hasn't worked out the same way in Washington.
"I'm sorry I had to put that in congressman, but it's true," Carnahan said.
Blunt interjected: "You couldn't help yourself, right?"
"Yea, because it's true," Carnahan responded.
What was true — and what was not — was a frequent point of contention in the two debates. Blunt and Carnahan each essentially accused the other of lying.
Carnahan got the last word — if only because Blunt wasn't around anymore.
After the debate, Blunt left without answering any additional questions from a gaggle of reporters.
Carnahan stuck around, holding forth in the very room that had been assigned to Blunt and his campaign team.
Asked about her aggressive tone in the debates, Carnahan responded: "I'm just trying to speak the truth." And she said it was no surprise Blunt walked out without a post-debate news conference. "He doesn't want to talk to the people about his record," she quipped.