SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (AP) - Needing to distinguish themselves in a three-way primary, Missouri's top Republican challengers to U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill instead hit upon a common theme Saturday while appealing to the party faithful. Their message: Freedom is under attack in America.
Former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman, businessman John Brunner and U.S. Rep. Todd Akin each were given a little less than 10 minutes in the spotlight in front of more than 2,000 delegates, alternates and guests at the Missouri Republican State Convention. They spent countless additional minutes in one-on-one conversations and shaking hands during a convention that marked a golden chance to win over some potentially influential party activists in a race where polls still show a significant number of Republicans are undecided.
As they have throughout the campaign, the Republican challengers repeatedly sought to link the Democratic McCaskill with President Barack Obama, blaming them for the nation's financial and economic struggles.
"Obama and McCaskill and other Washington politicians have strangled us - our family our children and children yet to be born - with a debt that is overwhelming and stifling and unsustainable," said Steelman, who drew the first speaking slot at the convention. She added: "Debt takes away our freedom."
Brunner told the audience: "Jobs are stalled. Freedom is stuck in reverse. It's a tough tragedy that we face."
Akin continued the freedom theme.
"Jobs are important and the economy is very important and both of them are under stress," Akin said. "But those are symptoms of a bigger problem, and that is an attack on your freedom and my freedom."
McCaskill, who held a rally later Saturday at a Teamsters hall in Springfield, said she agrees that government needs to spend less and enact only reasonable, commonsense regulations. But does she believe freedom is under attack?
"I do not. I feel pretty free," McCaskill said. She later added: "These are pretty extreme candidates."
The Republican candidates spoke primarily of economic freedom, praising the free-market system against a federal government that they said has become increasingly intrusive. They denounced Obama's energy and fiscal policies, for example, but made no public reference to the political battle over social freedoms, such as Obama's recent announcement that he supports gay marriage. All three of Missouri's top Republican Senate candidates have opposed gay marriage, and McCaskill said Saturday she has no quarrel with Missouri's constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
Steelman pledged to file a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution as her first act, if elected. Akin touted a proposed amendment that would limit the growth of federal government to a percentage of the gross domestic product. Brunner touted a four-point economic plan focused on expanding domestic energy production, relaxing regulations, cutting corporate taxes and limiting lawsuits.
Saturday's focus on economic issues highlighted what many Republicans believe is their best path to not only ousting Obama in November, but to gaining seats in the U.S. Senate and House.
Among those observing the Republican convention was a representative of the Senate Conservatives Fund, a group founded by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., which is trying to decide whether to endorse a candidate in Missouri's Senate primary. The political action committee has the potential to generate between $250,000 and $1 million for candidates by bundling contributions from conservatives around the country.
McCaskill said her Republican opponents have gone too far in their limited government rhetoric, insisting that the federal government plays an important role in backing student loans, among other things.
"We've got three candidates who want to turn out the lights on the federal government," she said.
The Republican candidates said it was McCaskill who was out of touch with average Missouri residents.
"Government has become an industry and the Senate that used to be the last protection of freedom in this country has become nothing more than a club dominated by people like (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid and Claire McCaskill - wealthy, privileged and pampered - and they care more about protecting their own jobs and their own re-elections than they do about our country," Steelman said.
McCaskill was ranked as the 11th wealthiest senator by the Center for Responsive Politics, which runs the website opensecrets.org. But she would be surpassed by Brunner, who built a fortune through his family's health-care products firm of Vi-Jon Inc. Brunner already had contributed more than $2 million to his campaign by the end of March. But Steelman also has some wealth. She loaned her campaign $400,000 last year.