By DAVID A. LIEB
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) - Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill has found at least one thing she can agree upon with her new Republican challenger, U.S. Rep. Todd Akin. Both believe the other is dead wrong on almost every major political issue.
After Akin won a hotly contested Republican primary Tuesday, he and McCaskill both pledged Missouri voters would see a stark contrast between the candidates in the November general election.
Akin called McCaskill a liberal. McCaskill called Akin an extreme conservative. Then, they both expressed hope that the campaign would remain civil.
Missouri's Senate race will be one of several key contests nationwide as Republicans seek to gain the four additional seats necessary to take control of the Senate away from Democrats. McCaskill and Akin will appear on the ballot just underneath the choice between Democratic President Barack Obama and his likely Republican opponent, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Their contests figure to have a few overlapping issues, including the direction of the economy and the merits of the federal health care law.
"It seems to me that the choice is going to be very clear in November," Akin said Tuesday. "You've got the big spending, budget-busting, job-killing liberal, or the less spending, balanced budget, job-creating conservative."
McCaskill, who casts herself as a moderate, not a liberal, proclaimed: "I don't know that Missouri voters will ever have more of a contrast."
"The issue here is not whether you can label him a conservative, but whether or not he is on the fringe - a very extreme candidate. I believe he is," McCaskill added.
Akin, who described himself as the most conservative congressman in Missouri, defeated former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman and businessman John Brunner in a race in which all three tried to appeal to conservative voters or tea party activists. He carried 36 percent of the vote, compared with 30 percent for Brunner and 29 percent for Steelman.
Steelman had enjoyed heavy support from Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and 2008 vice presidential nominee. Brunner had poured more than $7.5 million of his personal wealth into his first campaign, stressing his business experience and outsider status.
But Brunner and Steelman attacked each other's conservative credentials in TV ads, while Akin refused to go negative. Instead, Akin's ads featured the praise of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a 2008 presidential candidate.
Some voters said that made difference when trying to distinguish between three Republican candidates who all vowed to try to repeal Obama's health care while calling for reductions in government taxes, spending, debt and regulations.
"I don't like the negativity. I tend to go away from the ones that want to bash the others," said Heather Hon, 36, a nurse from the rural west-central town of Concordia who voted for Akin.
McCaskill may also have aided Akin with a TV ad in which she highlighted his conservative viewpoints - calling him a "crusader against bigger government," asserting that he wants to eliminate some federal agencies and privatize Social Security and noting that he promotes a "pro-family agenda" - before ending the commercial by claiming that Akin "is just too conservative."
Some Republicans at the polls Tuesday said McCaskill's ad increased their desire to vote for Akin. At least a couple Democrats said they crossed over and voted for Akin in the Republican primary in the hope he'd be an easier target for McCaskill in the general election.
McCaskill explained one motivation for the ad Tuesday.
"I wanted to begin to draw the contrast," she told The Associated Press. "I believed Todd Akin had a chance of winning, and I wanted to make sure voters understood how conservative he was."
Akin, 65, is a former Army officer, engineer and state lawmaker who first won election to the U.S. House in 2000 after narrowly prevailing in a five-person Republican primary. While other challengers portrayed themselves as Washington outsiders, Akin campaigned on a congressional record that he said proved his conservative gumption. He noted his opposition to No Child Left Behind Act, his desire to abolish the federal education department and his vote against the 2008 bank bailout. Akin also warned that the federal government suffers from "Stage Three cancer of socialism."
McCaskill, 59, is seeking a second six-year term in the Senate to cap a lengthy political resume that includes time spent as state auditor, a state lawmaker and a county prosecutor in the Kansas City area. For better or worse, McCaskill is linked to Obama. She was one of his earliest supporters during his 2008 campaign and backed Obama on two of his most high-profile laws - the 2010 health care overhaul and the 2009 stimulus act.