Jim Talent's Low Blow

Republican hopeful can't seem to fight like a man

If you're worried, like me, that the post-9/11 Era of Good Feeling is going to take all the fun out of American politics, rest assured that relief is on the way in Missouri.

The dreaded gender card has been played in the U.S. Senate race.

Now, you probably assume this means the feminists are on the loose again, making every tiny issue some "oppression of women" thing. You're wondering why the heck we can't all be gender-blind, the way we're all supposed to be colorblind on race issues whenever minorities want something.

Well, then, maybe you should ask Jim Talent. It turns out that the Republican challenger to Democratic U.S. Sen. Jean Carnahan has decided to introduce the issue of gender -- right out of the blue sky -- to demonstrate just how victimized a fellow can be when he's running against a woman.

Actually, Talent isn't doing it himself. Rather, he's sheepishly situated behind the petticoats of some political allies who just happen to be women and -- as part of their commitment to a gender-free campaign -- have formed a group called the Women for Talent Coalition.

Women for Talent? An organization dedicated to supporting a lifelong foe of women's reproductive rights, a man who made his first splash in Congress by championing an ill-fated bill to eliminate welfare payments to children of unwed mothers?

What's next, the Wives for Condit Coalition?

Ah, but I jest. Republican women have every right and reason to get behind the senatorial standard-bearer of their party. Besides, it's a good thing for the political landscape to have women at the fore, because it can't help but create a new level of civility and sensitivity.

Consider the nurturing words of one Catherine Hanaway, Republican minority leader of the Missouri House, on behalf of Talent last week at a gathering in St. Louis of 600 of his gender-blind female supporters:

"They are going to tell you that you should vote for the other Senate candidate just because she has a set of ovaries," Hanaway said. "It is no more right to vote for a woman than it is to vote for a man, based on biology."

Damn, that's not just a gender card, it's an ovary card. What a brilliant pre-emptive strike by Hanaway, a former aide to U.S. Sen. Kit Bond and President Bush's Missouri campaign chairwoman to boot. The Democrats have lost their surprise element.

Looks as if all those "Re-Elect Carnahan: She Has Ovaries" bumper stickers are out the window. Ditto for the "Biology Calls for a Better Jean" TV-commercial tag line.

Until now, there has been absolutely no mention from the Carnahan camp of the senator's womanhood -- despite the fact that she is indeed a woman -- but now it will be terribly difficult to make it a campaign issue. If only Talent could have used this strategy last year against Gov. Bob Holden, who waxed him, 54 percent to 43 percent, among women in an otherwise tight race.

In any event, Talent is paying more attention to women now than any politician since Bill Clinton. Not only did he kick off the "Women for Talent Coalition" with a star-studded list of male-organ-free witnesses such as commentator Mary Matalin, he campaigned in Kansas City with U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao -- a woman, not that it's important -- who no doubt testified that gender shouldn't matter, no matter what Jean Carnahan doesn't say about it.

At this rate, Talent may never appear in the presence of men again.

Do you get the feeling the Republicans are grasping a little here? Consider what state GOP spokesman Scott Baker said about Carnahan to the Post-Dispatch in October.

"It seems like she's still trying to find her way, trying to determine if she's going to be a leader or a follower," Baker said. "It's frightening to see some of the people she has chosen to associate with, whether it's Barbara Boxer or Ted Kennedy. These are certainly not people who represent Missouri values."

Boy, that is frightening, the thought of a U.S. senator "associating" with prominent members of her own party, especially known liberals. Now there's an issue Talent can work with.

Trouble is, Talent cannot credibly smear Carnahan with the "liberal" brush because her voting record -- which he does not appear interested in addressing publicly -- doesn't support such a claim. She was one of only 15 Democrats to join the Republican majority in supporting Bush's noxious budget plan -- complete with its $1.2 trillion tax cut -- something you can't say about either Boxer or Kennedy.

Like virtually all her colleagues nationally, Carnahan has unwaveringly supported Bush's terrorism measures, some of which deserved opposition. Yes, she votes mostly Democratic -- a fact that might prompt a "Democrats for Talent" movement -- but if Talent plans to attack her, say, for supporting the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance-reform bill or Democratic legislation for a patients' bill of rights, he's a little late.

As a congressman, Talent was among the most loyal -- and best-funded -- soldiers of the National Rifle Association. He was anti-choice on abortion, passionate in favor of tax breaks for private-school parents and the recipient of a 100 percent rating on the Christian Coalition scorecard in his three terms.

Talent could run against Carnahan from the right on such hot-button issues, but that would be difficult to square with the moderate persona he has forged, thanks to a low-key style and some enlightened positions on small-business and urban issues. He likely would get crushed.

To the Republicans' dismay, this isn't about sympathy for Carnahan. True, she has proved a remarkably courageous and admirable woman in coping with her tragedies, but she's a respected, hardworking and wise senator as well. If the Republicans have evidence to the contrary, they haven't shown it.

Carnahan also isn't down on Talent's level in the dignity department. That's too bad, really, because "Men for Carnahan" could be as entertaining as "Women for Talent."

I can hear it now: "They're going to tell you that you should vote for the other Senate candidate just because he has balls."

Nah. Judging from Jim Talent's campaign so far, nobody would say that.