To win in 2012, McCaskill looks to lessons of 2006

WASHINGTON (AP) — Sen. Claire McCaskill is facing re-election with her reformer image bruised by her use of a private plane and Republican efforts to paint her as a conventional, liberal Democrat. To win re-election she'll have to channel the public face of her 2006 campaign — that of an independent-minded, authentic Missourian bent on changing the way government works.

The question is whether she can. And McCaskill herself says she's going in to the campaign as the underdog.

In her Senate office — it is decorated with pictures and bobble head dolls of President Harry Truman, a Missourian famous for a come-from-behind victory — McCaskill said she has never run for statewide office as a favorite. That includes successful runs for state auditor and, in 2004, an unsuccessful run for governor.

"I've always gone in, you know, with people thinking I couldn't win," McCaskill said.

Nearly five years after her narrow victory over Sen. Jim Talent, McCaskill is taking criticism from the right, and even some from the left question her liberal credentials. Though she has sold a private plane that caused the first real political embarrassment of her time in the Senate, even supporters expect the issue to resurface. And she will run in different terrain than in 2006, when Republicans were on the retreat during the Bush administration.

In a twist on 2006, when her victory helped seal control of the Senate for Democrats, a McCaskill defeat could edge the Senate toward Republican control. The GOP needs a net gain of only four seats.

McCaskill emerged as one of the party's rising stars in 2006, and her endorsement of Barack Obama early in the Democratic nomination race in 2008 was widely credited with providing the boost that helped him win Missouri's Democratic primary. Now, with Obama under water in Missouri, Republicans are working to use her ties to Obama as an albatross. And they have likewise used her reformer rhetoric against her, saying that her problems with taxes and reimbursements on her plane show she does not practice what she preaches.

Her overall strategy hasn't changed, she said.

"I just try to be candid and forthright and honest with folks," she said during a recent interview with The Associated Press. "I know everybody in Missouri doesn't like me. I know a huge chunk of folks in Missouri can't stand me. But that's not the issue. The issue is: Are there more people in Missouri that believe I've been moderate, been independent, and represent them on the spectrum?"

McCaskill said she isn't worried about being too closely tied to Obama because he "knows I'm not a vote he can count on."

"We're friends," she said. "What would be the phoniest thing of all would be for me to all of the sudden not be his friend. I'd rather go home, not be re-elected."

The sale this week of a private plane McCaskill co-owned with her husband has quieted an issue that's festered for months. In April, McCaskill said she would "sell the damn plane" after a series of damaging revelations revolving around having reimbursed herself for its use on official and political travel. Amid criticism of the arrangement, she agreed to pay the government $88,000. Days later, she revealed she had not paid all of her taxes on the plane and paid about $320,000 in back taxes, penalties and interest to St. Louis County.

The bipartisan Senate ethics committee dismissed a Republican-filed complaint into the matter. Still, Republicans have used the plane, which was sold for a loss at $1.9 million, to try and portray McCaskill as out of touch and too big for Missouri. Lloyd Smith, the executive director of the state Republican Party, said the plane "draws attention to the fact that she's anything but middle class."

"Most people don't own a $2 million aircraft and sell it for $1.9 million," Smith said.

Some McCaskill supporters said the plane could linger as an issue.

"It depends on who she runs against ... but I think it's a challenge for her to overcome," said Steve Glorioso, a Missouri Democratic operative who has worked for McCaskill's campaigns but isn't working for her now. "It sort of raises the question of if she's going to be susceptible to a challenge that she's not the good-old country girl, down-to-earth person we once knew."

Glorioso is confident she can win out.

"Claire has always overcome controversy, going back to when she was a prosecutor. She's a tough campaigner," he said.

Heading into next year, McCaskill will benefit from a crowded Republican primary. At the moment, the Republican hopefuls — Rep. Todd Akin, St. Louis-area businessman John Brunner and former State Treasurer Sarah Steelman — are busy hitting each other.

McCaskill is also steadily raising a pile of campaign cash, with her $3,720,959 cash on hand nearly three times that for Akin, her closest competitor in fundraising. There is no evidence that Republican efforts to highlight her plane problems have hurt her in polls, although that could change when she has an opponent.

Meanwhile, McCaskill said her work in Washington will give her a strong resume of reform to run on. She cites as key accomplishments her work to expand whistleblower protections, her refusal to seek special spending requests, commonly called earmarks, and two pieces of legislation she wrote that became law: a bill that increased the independence of inspectors general to give them more leeway to report fraud and waste in government, and a bill that created a special inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

She is most proud, though, of her work to curb what she sees as the excesses of defense contractors. She helped create a subcommittee on contracting oversight and wrote legislation creating a contractor misconduct database.

"If you look back at what we campaigned on, I think I have made a difference in terms of the way the Defense Department deals with contracting," she said. "I have had a lot of great days in this job, but my favorite thing was when someone had been to Afghanistan ... told me he heard out of the commander's mouth, 'I think if we did this contract, McCaskill's team would be all over it.'"

McCaskill may have the same formula for her race in 2012 as past races, but she has sensed a change in the mood of voters. She said there's more frustration percolating now than when she ran in 2006, and a general distrust of politicians.

"What worries me the most is that people out there are so disgusted with all of us that they just say, you know, a pox on all your houses — you're all worthless," she said. "They don't realize that perhaps people need to be discerning and realize who is really willing to compromise and take a moderate position."

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