A businessman, an engineer and an economist walk into a room full of Republicans. All three vow to "repeal Obamacare" and reduce government taxes, spending, regulations and debt. Which one do Republicans vote for?
That's the choice facing residents in Missouri, where the leading candidates in an Aug. 7 primary to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill all espouse the same ideas on the economy, health care and a smattering of social issues such as abortion. With few substantive differences, Republican Senate hopefuls John Brunner, Todd Akin and Sarah Steelman have been trying to distinguish themselves by emphasizing their personal backgrounds and asserting they are the most reliable, red-blooded conservative.
As a result, the campaign has at times turned to hyperbole. Akin, for example, warns that the federal government suffers from "stage three cancer of socialism." Steelman says she became "absolutely, physically ill" when the Supreme Court ruling upheld President Barack Obama's health care law. And Brunner pumps his hands as he declares: "These regulations are crushing us."
The Republicans' run-to-the right strategy has been welcomed by McCaskill, who has sought to cast herself as a moderate eager to work with Republicans and Democrats alike. A historic swing state that has leaned Republican in recent national elections, Missouri is one of several key battlegrounds as the GOP attempts to wrest control of the Senate from Democrats.
Candidates' conservative credentials also have become an issue in the closely contested states of Florida and Wisconsin, where Republican primaries will occur a week after Missouri's. In Florida, for example, former Gov. Jeb Bush endorsed U.S. Rep. Connie Mack IV as "a principled conservative" - countering former Congressman Dave Weldon, whose Senate campaign slogan asserts he is "authentically conservative."
In Missouri, conservative endorsements have been flowing to rival candidates from the likes of former vice presidential candidate and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, former presidential candidate and Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Yet neither Brunner (a businessman), nor Akin (a congressman and engineer) nor Steelman (a former state treasurer and economist) has emerged as the clear front-runner among conservative voters.
"It may come down to when I'm sitting there with the ballot, making the decision," said Paul Szopa, 67, a hardware store employee in Columbia who describes himself as a "way-out-there, right-wing" Republican.
Brunner, 60, of suburban St. Louis, is hoping voters upset with Washington and concerned about the economy want a political outsider. He wants to follow the path of Wisconsin Republican Ron Johnson, a manufacturer who bankrolled his 2010 campaign with millions of dollars to oust Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold.
Brunner's wealth soared in 2006 when a private equity firm bought his majority ownership interest in Vi-Jon Inc., which makes Germ-X hand sanitizer and other personal health care products. Brunner already has poured nearly $5 million into his Senate campaign, blanketing the state with TV ads emphasizing his business acumen and picking apart Akin and Steelman's legislative votes that enlarged debt or earmarked spending toward particular projects. One Brunner ad fades from photos of Steelman and Akin to McCaskill and Obama, suggesting a resemblance. Brunner describes the debt that nearly sunk his own company in the 1990s as a lesson that "you can't borrow your way to prosperity."
Speaking recently to a Republican club at a Columbia restaurant, Brunner recounted meeting his future wife in a church youth group, serving as platoon commander in the Marines, going on overseas mission trips and doing everything from loading trucks to traveling the nation on sales calls as he helped rebuild his family's once-struggling business. His background was his prime selling point as he pledged to serve no more than two terms in the Senate.
"It's time for a citizen-senator, it's not time for the career politicians" Brunner said.
Yet Brunner has displayed a seasoned politician's caution in taking positions on certain issues. He has declined to say how he would vote on a farm billing pending in Congress, instead describing the general process by which he would make tough decisions.
Steelman, 54, of Rolla, has seized on that evasiveness to suggest Brunner cannot be trusted to execute conservative principles. A former state treasurer who lost a 2008 GOP primary for governor, Steelman had the greatest name recognition until Brunner began chipping away with ads.
She is a former state economist and college instructor who tried unsuccessfully to launch a bottled water business and opened an investment brokerage office before winning election in 1998 to the state Senate. She sponsored Missouri's constitutional amendment banning gay marriage but angered some fellow Republicans by opposing legislation limiting liability lawsuits.
Although she comes from a political family - her husband ran for attorney general in the 1990s and her father is a former state Republican Party chairman - Steelman has tried to position herself as an outsider with a slogan of "the status quo has got to go." She has been endorsed by Palin and the Tea Party Express.
"I'm going to kick in those doors, and I'm going to take you all with me and we're going to rattle some cages up in Washington," Steelman told a couple dozen Republicans in a meeting above a Columbia grocery store.
Akin, 65, of suburban St. Louis, never misses a chance to assert that he is Missouri's most conservative member of Congress. His ads feature testimonials from Huckabee about his conservative credentials.
Akin was an engineer - first in the Army, then at International Business Machines Corp. and Laclede Steel Co. - when he won election to the Missouri House in 1988. He was elevated to the U.S. House in 2000 after a five-way Republican primary in which he won with less than 26 percent of the vote.
Brunner, who once donated to Akin's campaign, now criticizes him for backing spending earmarks and voting to raise the debt ceiling. Akin counters with other votes that he says demonstrate his conservative mettle - against the No Child Left Behind Act signed by Republican President George W. Bush and against the bank bailout.
"A proven record's better than talk and promises," Akin said recently after speaking in the rural western Missouri town of Nevada.
Yet some Republicans are having trouble differentiating the candidates. Agricultural contractor Joe Rains, the Republican treasurer in rural Shelby County, said he's likely to base his vote on whoever seems most "down to earth." Said 66-year-old Rains: "They're all about the same as far as their beliefs and things, the best I can tell."