Purple People Watch

Missouri. The last poll, taken two weeks ago by the firm Research 2000, showed Democratic state auditor Claire McCaskill and Republican Secretary of State Matt Blunt running neck and neck, with 46 percent for McCaskill, 45 for Blunt, and 9 undecided. Little has happened in the race itself in these last two weeks to indicate a shift in the dynamic one way or another. But the dynamic of the presidential race could be significant in this campaign, and that might not be good news for McCaskill.

John Kerry's campaign hasn't run ads in Missouri for a few months, so last week's news that the Democratic National Committee's multi-million dollar TV campaign would (for the moment) be coming to an end seemed to confirm suspicions that the Dems are ceding the state. If true, that would obviously be bad news for Dems up and down the Missouri ticket.

But political scientist David Robertson of the University of Missouri-St. Louis cautions against sounding any death knells for the Democrats. He doesn't believe Kerry really has given up on the state (a belief supported by narrowing Bush leads in the most recent state polls; huge voter registration gains in Democratic strongholds in the state; and the Kerry campaign's own announcement that the candidate will be stumping across Missouri after tonight's debate in St. Louis). Moreover, McCaskill is one candidate who may not need Kerry's coattails. “I always expected McCaskill to outpoll Kerry in the election,” Robertson says. “She ran a primary campaign [against Democratic incumbent Bob Holden] that was skillfully targeted partly to rural voters, partly to independent Perot-type voters, as well as to the base.” Robertson argues that this voting coalition could hold for the general election, with McCaskill garnering big majorities in the urban strongholds of Kansas City and St. Louis but also major numbers in exurban counties, selected outstate areas in the north, and a few of the hardscrabble Bootheel counties in the southwest. That, at any rate, is the strategy behind her campaign's emphasis on issues like transportation and rural outreach, supplementing her more predictable appeals on Democratic staples like jobs and healthcare.

Meanwhile, after much wrangling the candidates have decided on two televised debates, set for October 18 and 22. Blunt's side hasn't exactly been chomping at the bit to schedule a bunch of one-on-ones with the appealing and far more experienced McCaskill. (She's 51; Blunt, son of U.S. House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, is 34 -- and looks and sounds even younger.) Robertson says the Blunt campaign has reason to worry: “McCaskill's a formidable person to hear speaking about issues. She really trounced Holden in the [primary] debate, and he was an incumbent governor.”

Montana. Another bitter election, another broken “clean campaign” pledge. Why do they keep signing these things? Republican Secretary of State Bob Brown has pulled within 4 percent of Democratic frontrunner Brian Schweitzer , according to a recent poll, and both candidates are hoping that hard charges will push them over the top. The Republican Governors Association (RGA) started off the festivities in mid-September with what was either (according to the RGA) a way of testing out future negative attacks or (according to Schweitzer's campaign) a “push poll” designed to trick voters into taking as fact false allegations. Considering how far in advance of the election the poll was conducted, the RGA may be telling the truth -- but that just means things are bound to get nastier.

The candidates themselves then started swinging, as Schweitzer took aim at Brown's spending habits as secretary of state and Brown assailed Schweitzer and his running mate for lieutenant governor, John Bohlinger, of constituting a flip-flop ticket. Did Brown's office need $1,696 in Roman blinds? Does Schweitzer oppose same-sex marriage firmly enough? So far, that's as bare-knuckled as it's gotten, but if it stays close there's worse to come.

New Hampshire. This has been a rough election season for Governor Craig Benson and some of his New Hampshire Republican counterparts. The party has been roiled by a series of scandals since the state's former GOP chairman pled guilty three months ago to criminal charges stemming from malfeasance on Election Day 2002. The list of alleged GOP misconduct is extensive and Democratic challenger John Lynch, a self-made furniture magnate, has placed Benson's and the state GOP's dubious ethics at the center of his campaign. In the most recent twist in the tangled web of Republican scandals in the Granite State, the Democratic Party has called on the attorney general to investigate payments made to Benson's campaign treasurer.

Despite the shadiness surrounding Benson, the one-term governor still enjoys a slight lead over Lynch. In a recent Concord Monitor poll, Lynch trailed Benson 49 percent to 41 percent with nearly 10 percent undecided. Lynch is still relatively unknown in New Hampshire; roughly one-third of voters surveyed had no opinion of Lynch, who, after all, has never before run for elected office.

Behind these poll numbers, however, lurks an important if under-reported story. According to St. Anselm University political scientist Dante Scala, the state GOP is struggling to enlist new voters. Since the January primary, New Hampshire Republicans have been able to increase their pool of registered voters by only 0.2 percent. This is in stark contrast to the significant increase in GOP registrants in 1980, 1984, and 1988 -- the last three times that Republican presidential candidates took the state. As Lynch raises his profile throughout the state, expect this race to come down to the wire.

Vermont. Seems like it's all over but the voting. Peter Clavelle, Burlington's mayor of 15 years, was always at a significant disadvantage in trying to unseat popular Republican Governor Jim Douglas; now, still lacking the statewide recognition he would need to win the race, Clavelle has also bottomed out financially.

The Clavelle campaign's September finance report showed its cash-on-hand below $50,000, not nearly enough to keep the campaign on television through November 2. Clavelle has loaned at least $19,000 of his own money to the campaign, which had to cancel an unusual online auction due to the campaign financing headache it was sure to cause. (Besides -- who was going to bid on ten discount vasectomies?)

Even if the campaign is able to keep itself on the air for the rest of the race, it's doubtful whether its ads will be enough to turn the Douglas tide. Clavelle wants to link Douglas to the Republicans in the White House -- in particular, to a certain vice president who had unkind words for Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy back in June. But although the national Republicans are widely loathed figures in Vermont, the blow just won't land. Douglas, says University of Vermont political science professor Garrison Nelson, is “a throwback to the good old days of the Republican party, of moderate conservatism, and [the comparison to Dick Cheney] is not sticking.”

A marker of Douglas' confidence is the long stretch of joint appearances to which he and Clavelle have agreed. The pair will appear together at least a dozen times this fall, Lincoln-Douglasing it up right into November. Although this will help raise Clavelle's profile, the incumbent Douglas stands to benefit as well. Douglas “has got a radio voice, he's a very practiced campaigner,” according to Nelson. “Peter has never had to face a debater with Jim's skills.” Although the experience and the exposure may prepare Clavelle for a stronger run in 2006, it's doubtful that they'll be enough to elevate him to the state house in 2004.

Washington. Standards for dirty campaigning seem rather lower in the Pacific Northwest than here on the east coast, as the gubernatorial campaign enters what The Seattle Post-Intelligencer described as "its most intense and bruising phase" with a rather milquetoast exchange of attack ads. Republican nominee and former State Senator Dino Rossi struck first with an advertisement charging his opponent, Attorney-General Christine Gregoire, with ... mismanaging a 2000 legal appeal by state lawyers. Ouch! Gregoire countered with an ad accusing Rossi of ... not really being a licensed real estate dealer. Pow!

Rossi, as his campaign has admitted in a press release, is not, in fact, a licensed real estate dealer, contrary to assertions made in some of his earlier campaign literature.

This, um, gutter politics comes as the two candidates vie for the seat being vacated by incumbent Gary Locke, America's first Chinese-American governor and a former rising star in the Democratic Party who dropped off the political map after his catastrophic rebuttal to the 2003 State of the Union address. Gregoire has maintained a narrow lead in the two most recent polls, boosted by a massive edge among female professionals. Rossi leads among young people, but his campaign is hampered by his inability to win the support of voters disappointed by Washington's sluggish economic performance over the past few years of Democratic rule.

West Virginia. Despite recent “fight to the end” talk by Dick Legitt, campaign manager for Republican nominee Monty Warner, it seems unlikely that the GOP campaign will give Democratic candidate Joe Manchin any serious trouble. Already down below $9,000 in cash, according to filings with West Virginia's secretary of state in mid-September, the Warner campaign must now disprove an outstanding bill with a Virginia-based political consulting firm. David Avella, owner of the firm Donateli/Avella, is claiming an unpaid bill of $17,000. Despite these lingering financial woes, the Warner campaign claims to have $500,000 reserved for ads in an aggressive drive to election day.

Meanwhile, Manchin holds both a comfortable lead against his opponent and an adequate war chest to spend on ads. Both campaigns plan to blitz voters until the end, although the local race could get overshadowed in the scrum between George W. Bush and John Kerry in the state.

Compiled by the Prospect staff. Click here to read the previous edition of “Purple People Watch.”