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Blunt hopes to keep Senate seat in Republican control

Sunday, October 24, 2010 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:43 p.m. CDT, Thursday, October 28, 2010

JEFFERSON CITY — If you were to believe what you'd heard from his opponent's television spots, Roy Blunt comes across as a corrupt Washington insider.

Those who know Blunt say the longtime Republican congressman, who now is making a bid for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Kit Bond, is far from the character his opponent Robin Carnahan depicts.

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Bill Brown, provost at Southwest Baptist University, recalls Blunt's tenure at the school fondly.

"He's well aware of his public persona and brought that to the university," Brown said. "He really raised the bar for all of us."

Brown was dean of the College of Music, Arts and Letters when Blunt joined the school as president in 1993. Brown recalls Blunt as an outgoing, affable administrator.

One memory stands out in particular.

Administrators and department heads were meeting prospective students at a school function. Brown was standing in the corner, eating a cinnamon bun, when Blunt approached and said: "Are you here to eat your breakfast? Or are you here to talk with people?"

"He certainly meant it, but there was a friendliness to it," Brown recalled with a laugh.

An eagerness to raise the school's profile marked Blunt's tenure there. "He was able to create a sense of community. It was very important to him that everyone work together well," Brown said.

Brown recalled that Blunt would put together a large number of social activities, scheduling them around sporting and trustee events that were sure to attract diverse groups. Blunt's goal, Brown said, was plain to see.

"He wanted to bring different groups of people together — faculty groups, student groups — to build bridges among different groups of people," the provost said. "Frankly, we had been in a situation where we kept ourselves segmented. We didn't know each other."

At all these functions, Blunt would introduce everyone in the room and tell them how much they were appreciated.

"He would say, 'All issues are personnel issues,'" Brown said.

"I felt he was far more than simply a transition president for us, and yet he was a terrific transition president. He really solved some problems for us," Brown said, noting that the university had been running with a deficit before Blunt arrived. By the time he left, they were in the black.

"You just think, 'How does he do it? How does he memorize all of this stuff and make it seem so natural and so thoughtful. He has a real knack for the public.'"

Not everyone is so sold on the candidate.

A poll earlier this month showed Blunt receiving only 8 percent of Democratic votes.

Part of the reason may be Carnahan's attack ads, which have accused Blunt of being a Washington insider. The Democrat has noted that he's married to a former tobacco lobbyist.

Blunt's ties to lobbyists recently became an issue when Carnahan used a clip of Fox News host Chris Wallace questioning Blunt over legislation he promoted that benefited the tobacco company for which his now-wife lobbied.

In addition to his wife, Blunt's son, Andrew, is a powerful lobbyist in Missouri.

Blunt, too, has unleashed a barrage of negative ads against Carnahan. He has tried to tie her to President Barack Obama and to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who are largely unpopular in Missouri. In one ad, viewers are treated to a quote from Obama declaring of a potential Carnahan win, "I need another vote. It'd be helpful."

It wasn't always this way.

When Blunt made his first forays into public office in the early 1970s, he had real crossover appeal. First elected as county clerk in 1973, the former high school history teacher was a fresh face in Missouri's staid politics.

He was elected secretary of state in 1984. In that position he pushed for the modernization of the office and for government reforms. He was popular with Democrats as well as Republicans and was re-elected four years later.

In fact, when pressed to say one good thing about her opponent at a recent debate,  Carnahan noted her predecessor's successes as secretary of state.

No longer.

"He surrendered that about him a long time ago," MU political science professor Marvin Overby said of Blunt's reputation for bipartisan cooperation.

Blunt went to Washington as a congressman in 1997. After just one term, he was elected majority whip. After Tom DeLay resigned as speaker of the House in 2006, Blunt ran for his job, losing to now-Minority Leader John Boehner, in part because of questions about his connections to lobbyists.

"Whips are not the ones to reach across the aisle," Overby said, but he added that might not matter this year. "Despite what people may claim they want, this isn't a political era that's about reaching across the aisle."

Overby noted that both candidates have had a difficult time claiming the mantle of  political outsider.

"It's an odd campaign. You've got two political insiders. Both of them are the progeny of well-known political families running in a year when being an outsider is an asset. It's something of a political spectacle to watch," Overby said.

And, in a year with strong anti-Democratic sentiment among voters, it's a spectacle with an ending that should favor the Republican, Overby said.


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