Steelman is shy, and even in a one-on-one setting, she lets others do the talking. "It's hard for me to talk about the things I've done. David gets on me for it," she says. During the pre-dinner mingling in St. Charles, Steelman gets an assist from Willliam "Buddy" Hardin, a local activist and friend of her consultant, Jeff Roe. Hardin, a barrel-chested man whose suit lapels are covered with stickers, introduces her to several people. Steelman greets each of her new acquaintances with a long, earnest handshake. "She's not your traditional, kiss-a-baby, look-how-great-I-am politician," Hardin says.

Hardin acknowledges Hulshof's popularity, but asserts, "An informed primary voter has to look at electibility. A female candidate has some advantage, at least getting the door open for a closer look."

With her petite figure and chiseled features, Steelman has never wanted for attention. "She's an attractive candidate — physically," says Scott Alford, a Republican committeeman who lives in Steelman's rural part of the state. Alford is often amused to watch one local supporter's response to her presence. "Every time he sees her, he goes up, 'I gotta get my hug.'"

Jennifer Silverberg
Sarah Steelman attends a dinner event with her husband and advisor, David.
Jennifer Silverberg
Sarah Steelman attends a dinner event with her husband and advisor, David.

Flotron, the former senator, first met Steelman when she was a legislative intern. He says he didn't give much thought to her future in politics. "Understand that I'm male, and she's overwhelmingly attractive," he explains.

One anonymous commentator on the political blog PubDef labeled her a MILF. The commentary doesn't stop at such locker-room-style assessments. Several blog followers can't resist resurrecting an old Jefferson City rumor about her dalliances with fellow senators. Says Steelman: "It's just rumor-blogging. People will say anything and make stuff up."

Contrary to the image of Steelman as the capitol flirt, her friends and colleagues say she's a dutiful mother. As a senator, she skipped social functions to watch her sons play sports. (Sam, 21, and Joe, 19, are now away at college.) Reached at home one evening in March, Steelman says her after-hours routine began at her parents' home to help her mother, who has Lou Gehrig's disease. Then she stopped at the grocery store in Rolla and had just finished making dinner for Michael and David. Steelman planned to skip dinner herself; she wanted to squeeze in a workout.

"I used to be amazed at how she could do it," says Ken Jacob, a former Democratic senator whose office was next door to Steelman's for several years. Jacob is one of the few politicians who knew Steelman before her marriage in 1985. In graduate school at the University of Missouri-Columbia, they ended up in the same class on a primitive form of computer programming.

"I do recall being totally stuck and needing that class for graduation," Jacob says. "We were on the same team. Sarah saved me. She's deceptively smart. I think sometimes people don't give her the credit she deserves."

Steelman's consultant, Jeff Roe, boasts on his firm's Web site that he turned five Senate and thirteen House seats in northwest Missouri from blue to red. Should a Republican adopt a slogan associated with the Black Panthers? Roe didn't think it was a good idea. Steelman didn't listen. "I liked it," she says. "I'm the one running."

She says the slogan defines her career, which began in 1998 with a run for Senate against a sixteen-year incumbent. Democrat Mike Lybyer was chairman of the appropriations committee, and he had endorsements from the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and members of the Missouri Farm Bureau.

In the late 1990s, the legislature's attempt to ban partial-birth abortion consumed state politics. Lybyer cast the vote that let stand Governor Mel Carnahan's 1997 veto of the ban. "That was the beginning of the end," says Catherine Lange, a Republican from Cuba who worked on Steelman's campaign.

Steelman was helping her husband host a local radio show called Right Talk, and she thought Lybyer was out of touch with the conservative district. She had the backing of Missouri Right to Life, but she didn't draw many supporters to the campaign trail. Two weeks before Election Day, she held a fundraiser at a winery near Hermann, and only two men showed up. "There were a lot of empty picnic tables," she says. David Steelman recalls how it looked as though his wife wouldn't win even conservative Gasconade County. "We left that fundraiser feeling pretty down."

Steelman, though, bested Lybyer with a stunning 58 percent of the vote. "I beat him. I even beat him in his own township," she says in a voice full of satisfaction. The headline in The Salem News, the twice-weekly newspaper in her husband's hometown, trumpeted: "Power to the People."

Steelman thought the headline was perfect. "We need to keep power in the hands of the people."

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