Tea Party Crasher: Hard-charging Ed Martin wants to win your vote — and Russ Carnahan's congressional seat

Ed Martin
Ed Martin Jennifer Silverberg

Tea Party Crasher: Hard-charging Ed Martin wants to win your vote — and Russ Carnahan's congressional seat

Republican Ed Martin wants your vote. Really, really badly. Tell him what street you live on (he's going to ask), and Martin may follow up: Which side? He's memorized the boundaries of Missouri's 3rd Congressional District down to the lane stripes.

He could be our salvation, this chummy Catholic conservative with the boyish grin, brazen tongue and yard signs everywhere. Or he could be a hard-right, hothead demagogue antichrist (with yard signs everywhere). It depends on your politics.

But here's what doesn't: Even as the economic storm clouds part, voters still feel hard-strapped. Initiatives such as the stimulus that were meant to rescue us from a fearful recession have bred new fears of the national debt. We binged on Hope and Change. Now we're hung-over.

The mood nationwide is anti-incumbent, and St. Louis' own incumbent Democrat, Russ Carnahan — endowed with all the charm and charisma of C-SPAN — is spending more cash than ever before to keep his seat.

That's because the most dangerous place to stand in "MO-3" is between Ed Martin and an eligible voter.

"He is the one of the hardest-working candidates I've ever seen in my life," says John Hancock, former chairman of the Missouri GOP.

Just as well, say political observers. Martin is clearly the underdog in the 3rd District — solidly democratic territory stretching from University City to Ste. Genevieve. His base is juiced up, but he can only win this race by wooing undecideds. That's a tall order for a guy famous for partisan zeal.

"I like Ed," says Mike Kelley, former chairman of the state Democratic party. "He's a person I've had drinks with before, and a person I've worked with before.

"But working with Ed is like working with a lit firecracker. It's gonna explode; you just don't know when."

On a recent September morning, Martin busts out of the back door of his campaign headquarters, a one-story brick house in south city whose basement office is nicknamed "The Freedom Bunker." He beelines for his F-150 pickup — license plate: "9-11" — with a water bottle in one hand, a Blackberry Curve in the other (he's checking it) and folded-up MapQuest directions between his teeth.

"The Tea Party endorsed me, did you know that?" he says, pulling onto Hampton Avenue. "They actually endorsed me." Well, duh. Wasn't Martin an originator of the St. Louis Tea Party? Didn't he stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Bill Hennessy and Gina Loudon on the steps of the Arch at the first gathering in February 2009, expecting 150 people when 1,500 showed up?

"Yeah," he says, "but their policy was no endorsing of candidates." This is true. Hennessy, cofounder of the local grassroots coalition, feared that picking favorites would scare off libertarians, the religious right or disaffected Dems.

Now, Hennessy says, it would be "irresponsible" not to endorse Martin.

"If you look at the rate we're piling up debt, at some point it doesn't matter what party you belong to," Hennessy explains. "You gotta look at your kids and take a stand for the future."

Martin has made fiscal conservatism his core message. Rarely does he miss a chance to denounce the "runaway spending" embodied in "Obamacare" and the stimulus package. His number-one priority, he says, is jobs. In December, he wrote on his website that "job creation requires nothing more from our government than a willingness to let it happen."

Yet that's tough to square with what he told Charles Jaco in August — that he "emphatically" supports government-funded, WPA-style public projects. (He even once wrote a column in the Metro Evening Whirl advocating federal spending for colonies on the moon and Mars.) Only the government can afford such large-scale undertakings, he explains. His beef with the stimulus package, in fact, was that it didn't create enough shovel-ready jobs — a bit of careful triangulation from a candidate who's publicly pledged never to vote for a tax increase.

Martin's anti-tax stance is precisely the reason why the National Federation of Independent Businesses chose to endorse him. On this crisp fall morning, he's heading to a press conference to announce it at a design firm on South Jefferson Avenue.

Martin crosses the parking lot, whistling. He sports a black suit, apple-red tie and businessman's haircut. Inside, he does what he does best: talks up the race, razzes folks like a frat boy, works the room. After a quick video shoot, Martin pivots to face the seated office workers. "Are there any other voters here?" he says.

Within minutes he's back out the door, checking voicemail.

"Gosh," he says, hanging up, "you meet people on the trail, they're wonderful, and they don't stop calling you." Martin affixes his cell-phone number to every e-mail he sends. He responds to all e-mails personally.

Cruising back to the Freedom Bunker, Martin speaks through yawns, which seems to happen anytime he sits for more than five minutes. Asked how much he sleeps per night, he gets distracted by a lawn festooned with his signs.

"Oh, there's a patriot!" he says. "Look at that. Hmm, that's a nice yard." A neighbor's yard displays even more. "Hey — somebody's motivated over here! Yeah, I don't know how many hours I sleep. Not very much. The kids are the wild card."

Martin's wife, Carol, is a geriatrics physician. They have a daughter in first grade, a three-year-old boy and a twenty-month-old son Martin calls his "stimulus baby," thanks to his birth date of February 17, 2009 — the day that legislation became law. Martin has no problem changing diapers, he says, because he literally has no sense of smell. (He also endured open-heart surgery in 2008.)

Soon he's back inside his office at the Freedom Bunker. On one wall hang all four of his diplomas, including one from a Pontifical school in Rome. A half-hour from now, Martin will shoot both a four-minute and a one-minute pitch to voters at the KMOV-TV (Channel 4) downtown studio. It's decided that he will emphasize jobs. Carnahan shot his own clips earlier that morning. He used a TelePrompTer. Martin will not.

Martin's press secretary, Theresa Petry, is making a valiant attempt to eat Rally's, answer e-mails and pack a camera bag at the same time. But now it's time to go. They pile into the pickup; every time they pass an "Ed Martin" sign, the candidate points it out.

Downtown, Martin spies a small spot on Market Street and wonders if he can squeeze in.

"Ed, you're not the best parallel parker," Petry says.

"You see?" the candidate says. "These are the kinds of scurrilous attacks I'm up against."

Inside KMOV, the producer and Martin chat as they stride toward the production room.

"So where do you live?" Martin asks.

"Edwardsville," the producer replies.

"Augh," says Martin. "Not in the district."

Ed Martin is a New Jersey native of Irish stock. His parents both grew up in big families south of Newark. They married, then ventured 65 miles west to a railroad-stop town of 1,000.

His father set up a solo law practice. His mother abandoned a nursing career to watch after Ed, his older sister and younger brother. Young Ed Martin fished, canoed, got stitches, got in trouble, and scurried home when his parents clanged the bell outside the back door.

As a boy, he visited the Jesuit-run Saint Peter's Preparatory School in Jersey City, his father's alma mater. A self-described "country kid," Martin was mesmerized. He prevailed on his parents to let him commute three hours every day, by train and bus, in order to attend.

"That was a big pivot in my life," he says. "It made me confident."

At Saint Peter's, he played basketball all four years, but was cut from the baseball team his junior year. The coach broke the news by explaining that the team had no uniforms left; otherwise, Martin could have stayed on. Martin offered to buy another uniform. The coach told him that wasn't the point.

He attended the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he roomed with the son of conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Martin wasn't gunning for a political career just yet, although he was reading "a ton" on his way to an English degree. (He tacked on a concentration in Peace and Conflict Studies.)

On a brief cultural immersion trip to Cuernavaca, Mexico, as a sophomore, Martin met a peasant farming family that lost several members to dysentery.

"For a twenty-year-old college kid," he says, "that was pretty heavy." It spurred him to apply for a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship to study infant mortality and water supply in Indonesia, which he received in 1992.

"I don't know that I developed any grand theory," Martin says of his yearlong stay, though he gained an appreciation for how differently Southeast Asian Muslims bathe (by using a small scoop of water) and worship (with daily calls to prayer).

Although he'd already snagged a Rotary scholarship to stay in Indonesia a second year, he grew so "miserably homesick" that he asked for a transfer to Italy instead. He spent two years studying philosophy at Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, then finally landed at Saint Louis University in August 1995 for law school.

Typical Ed Martin chutzpah was on display within three days of his arrival. He rode the MetroLink to the old Busch Stadium, where he informed security guards he had Vatican press credentials (which, technically, he did). "There I was, up in the press box, pretending to really be a journalist," he recalls fondly, bragging of chats with Bob Costas and the Cardinals' management.

At Saint Louis University, Martin earned both a law degree and a master's in health-care ethics. A work-study job as a campus museum security guard helped pay for it. When he and then archbishop Justin Rigali discovered they had mutual friends in Rome, they began sharing meals together.

Upon Rigali's invitation, Martin worked in the Vatican for a month as a lay "youth expert" during a 1997 conference of bishops from the Americas. Martin helped with translation, spoke regularly with the pope and did the first reading at the Mass that kicked off the gathering in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.

"The place was full," Martin recalls. "Standing in St. Peter's, with the pope sitting behind you, looking out, it was pretty amazing."

Martin's first taste of leadership — and political controversy — came in 1998, when he finished law school and Rigali tapped him to direct the Human Rights Office of the Archdiocese of St. Louis.

Martin says he merely "cleaned house" in a "moribund" institution. Others called it a purge of experienced liberals.

Established in the '60s, the Human Rights Commission began as a band of priests doing civil rights work. It soon expanded to enlist lay people and broadened its scope to champion labor, immigrant and environmental causes. The commission enjoyed such broad autonomy during the '80s, in fact, that its positions didn't always align with those of the more conservative archdiocesan central office.

All that changed under Rigali.

In February 1998, the archbishop reached a compromise with disgruntled Catholic elementary school teachers: They could have more say over wages and benefits, but not unionize. But when the commission issued a statement supporting a teachers' union, it was rebuffed and muffled from public comment.

Tom Nolan, director of the Human Rights Office, resigned in frustration, as RFT reported at the time. (Then, as now, Nolan declines to discuss the matter.)

Rigali subsequently ignored the commission's written suggestions for selecting a new director and hired Ed Martin instead.

Martin was 28 years old. He'd never managed people before.

"They brought us all in, and Ed handed out his résumé," remembers Angie O'Gorman, then a Human Rights Office employee. "It showed a noticeable lack of work experience and knowledge of the social-justice teachings of the Church. There was widespread concern about that."

As Martin remembers it, the Human Rights Office had dominant personalities that were "grandstanding" for fringe labor issues, such as strawberry workers. "Not much was being done," he says. "It had gotten too far left for no good reason."

On one occasion, O'Gorman recalls, Haitian activists informed the staff that soccer balls exported from their Carribean island were manufactured with child labor. The activists pleaded for the archdiocese to stop buying them. Afterward, O'Gorman says, Martin expressed a reluctance to "rock the boat" with the procurement office, but promised he'd consult with the supervising bishop.

Nothing ever came of it.

"The desire to protect the procurement office from grappling with the soccer-ball issue was just one example of Ed trying to protect the status quo," explains O'Gorman. "Ed's allegiance was to — and Rigali's interest was in — protecting the business sector from demands of the Church's social justice teaching."

Today, Martin proudly ticks off his accomplishments as director. He increased funding for the pro-life programs, while defunding groups such as ProVote, a progressive political-activist coalition. He says he strengthened ties with the National Black Catholic Congress, and coordinated a meeting between Rosa Parks and John Paul II during the papal visit of 1999. (The Pope, he notes, remembered him.)

Martin also funneled resources to the prison ministry and Catholic Charities, which O'Gorman considered a good thing — but beside the point.

"The point of the Human Rights Office was social-change work, to help people become conscious of the way that society is organized to cause oppression," she says. "I'm not sure [Ed] understood the difference between social justice and charity."

As for the personnel changes, Martin says, "We didn't get rid of everybody. Some people moved on, and some people we pushed on."

O'Gorman says that Martin "decimated" the office, adding: "It was hard to tell what he was doing on his own and what he was doing at the request of the archbishop."

Today, according to the archdiocese, the tasks of the Human Rights Office have been absorbed by Catholic Charities.

In April 2002, U.S. Senator Christopher "Kit" Bond, the Missouri Republican, brought an English springer spaniel onto the Senate floor in Washington, D.C. Making the case for national election reform, he wanted all to meet Ritzy. She'd been registered to vote in St. Louis.

The city had a bad reputation for voting irregularities, but the November 2000 election was truly a farce. Hundreds of citizens showed up to vote but found their names had been mistakenly dropped from the rolls. When a judge ordered an emergency extension of voting hours, a higher state court quickly reversed it — but folks kept voting anyway.

By the end of Election Day, Bond was pounding his fist on a lectern, declaring the whole thing "an outrage." Yet the problems persisted into the next year, when two prominent aldermen registered to vote — despite being dead.

In 2003, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial board blasted the Board of Election Commissioners as an "unconscionable mess," where patronage employees "who owe their allegiance to politicians have never been known for their devotion to long hours and hard work."

Enter Ed Martin.

He'd been busy since leaving the archdiocese, clerking for a federal appeals court judge, getting married, having a baby and practicing law at Bryan Cave. Governor Matt Blunt appointed him to chair the bipartisan board in May 2005.

Within three months, Martin and his two fellow commissioners had fired or demoted seven top staffers, including some Republicans. They refined the duties of those remaining with a clear message: Do your job, or lose your job. Martin also handed over evidence of voter fraud to the authorities.

Even Democrats who wouldn't dream of supporting Martin's current bid for Congress give him props for his tenure as chairman.

Jeff Rainford, St. Louis mayor Francis Slay's chief of staff, lauds Martin for recruiting able workers to get the trains running on time. By November 2008, Rainford observed, the board of elections was "like night and day" from its 2000 woes, which he finds ironic, given that it probably hurt Martin's party.

"Though he is obviously one of the most partisan guys around," Rainford says, "Ed still wanted the place run right, even if that meant more Democrats would vote."

Clarence Dula, the Democratic commissioner, often differed with Martin. "We're both strong-opinion guys, we dig in our heels," Dula says. But Martin kept things light with jokes, and agreed to a mode of communication with Dula that they nicknamed "gloves off."

"When we went 'gloves off,' we would talk about things offensive to most people and make each other clear," Dula recalls. "That was the fantastic thing about working with Ed. I don't think I'd worked that closely with anyone before."

One fired board staffer, however, accused Martin and the other commissioners of excessive partisan zeal. Oddly, she was a member of the GOP.

In 2006, Jeanne Bergfeld, an assistant director of operations, filed a federal lawsuit claiming she was wrongfully terminated by Martin and his two colleagues for being "not Republican enough."

Martin denies it. "She said she was a Republican; nobody ever questioned that," he tells RFT, adding that Bergfeld was a patronage employee who had enjoyed "twelve years of not having to do anything" and who "wasn't interested in changing."

Martin concludes: "We did everything we could, appropriately, to have her do her job, but it wasn't in the cards."

The parties settled the suit in 2007. Chet Pleban, who represented Bergfeld, says only that it was "resolved satisfactorily."

By the time Governor Matt Blunt went hunting for a new chief of staff in 2006, Ed Martin had become the city's It conservative. The chairman of the board of elections was hosting a call-in talk show on KTRS (550 AM). He was president of the Federalist Society. He brought Supreme Court Justice Scalia here to speak before a capacity crowd of attorneys from the local bar association (Scalia and Martin then shared a meal with Rush Limbaugh).

Martin had also proven himself a staunch pro-life crusader. He founded his own law firm in 2004 and filed several lawsuits on behalf of pharmacists who refused, on religious grounds, to dispense Plan-B, better known as the "morning-after pill." He even argued his position on CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight opposite then-Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich.

Back in Jefferson City, Blunt's approval ratings had dipped. His first chief of staff, Ken McClure, had been a mild-mannered administrator. Observers said the governor was looking for new blood. He brought in Martin in September 2006.

Democratic senator Timothy Green of north St. Louis county says Martin proved himself a "vindictive" political hatchetman.

Says Green: "His solution to public policy is to create total chaos."

George Connor, a political science professor at Missouri State University, says that partisan warfare in Missouri government "didn't start with Ed Martin or end with him, either. It only got worse while he was chief of staff."

Martin hurtled the sharpest spears at Jay Nixon, then attorney general, who was expected to run for governor as a Democrat. Martin faulted Nixon for not prosecuting anyone after the Taum Sauk reservoir collapse devastated Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park. When e-mails surfaced suggesting that Martin put pressure on the Missouri Highway Patrol to make the same critique, the chief of staff denied any impropriety.

One state employee in the Blunt administration, a Republican who declined be named, says Martin was known in the governor's office for "angry outbursts."

"I thought very highly of Ed before he took that job," the former employee said. "When he got that power, he became a ruthless animal."

On August 27, 2007, reporter Tony Messenger of the Springfield News-Leader sent the governor's office a modest request under Missouri's Sunshine Law, which ensures that government records are open to the public. Messenger wanted copies of any e-mails that Martin had sent to a certain pro-life group during the previous week.

Blunt's staff responded that no such e-mails existed.

Messenger insisted they did. A source had already forwarded one to him. And he believed that it strongly suggested that Martin was mixing "partisan campaigning with the process of doing his state job," or working for the GOP while on the public dime.

Martin acknowledged writing the e-mail in question, but maintained — and still does today — that all of his correspondence was policy-based, and therefore legit.

In that case, Messenger argued, the documents were public record and had to be retained. Yet Blunt staffers insisted at first that none of their e-mails were public record. That's exactly why they were getting deleted.

Deleted? The media collectively gasped. "Memogate" had begun.

At least one man working for Blunt in the fall of 2007 did believe some e-mails were public records: the governor's 30-year-old deputy general counsel, Scott Eckersley.

In a September 14 memo, Eckersley encouraged his superiors to concede that very fact. Not to honor the spirit of the Sunshine Law, however; Eckersley thought he'd found an escape hatch. Any e-mails generated in the "deliberative decision-making process," Eckersley reasoned, were public record only if they were retained. If the governor's office wasn't retaining them, ipso facto, they weren't public record.

Convoluted as that sounds, Eckersley would soon be using that memo as evidence that he'd urged greater transparency. And he was going to need all the evidence he could get.

At the time Memogate broke, Eckersley wasn't exactly employee of the year. He'd shown up late on at least three occasions. After getting reprimanded, he e-mailed a friend, "I just kind of don't really care too much."

Eckersley's supervisor, general counsel Henry Herschel, allowed the young man to do legal work for his family's business while at the office. But on September 21, Herschel admonished him to focus more on his tasks for the state.

Eckersley fired back in an e-mail: "If you have a problem with me come in and talk to me about it face to face."

Worst of all, Eckersley — a devout Mormon who'd just broken up with his fiancée — registered on the racy website Adult Friend Finder, looking for a "slim and attractive woman." He apparently checked several boxes in the "Looking For" section of his profile, including "Group sex (3 or more)."

The adult website generated messages to Eckersley's family business e-mail account — which automatically forwarded them to his state e-mail. (He claims he never looked at them at the office.)

Eckersley and Herschel had a blow-up confrontation on Friday, September 21, 2007. Martin assured the young man by text over the weekend that all would be well.

But on Sunday evening, Eckersley found himself frozen out of his government e-mail account. He was told to stay out of the office for a few days.

The next Friday, Ed Martin hauled Eckersley into his office.

As Eckersley secretly recorded the conversation, Martin mentioned the Sunshine Law and said he'd heard that Eckersley planned to go out "with guns blazing" and "take down the governor." Martin then said he was firing Eckersley, citing the personal business he was doing on state time, e-mails from the "group sex" site and the argument with Herschel.

As the recording makes clear, Eckersley tried to explain that his disagreement with Herschel involved the Sunshine Law.

Eckersley: This was about me sending an e-mail to you, which I've done several times, where things are being overlooked. This was me trying to say: We're saying this, and it's not that.

Martin: You're not fucking right. And it's not your role, so —

Eckersley: How am I not right?

Martin: You're not right on any of this shit. You were told not to send e-mails to me and you decided to do it anyway. It's called insubordination to your direct supervisor.

Tipped off one month later that Eckersley was about to go public with his own story, Martin had packets sent to media outlets. Inside were printouts of e-mails from Scott Eckersley's account showing the private work he'd done on government time. A letter, composed by Martin but signed by another staffer, reiterated the governor's justification for firing Eckersley. It also added new reasons, such as possible drug use — an accusation Martin has never proved.

In the stories that finally ran on October 28, Eckersley publicly swiped back at his bosses. He got canned, he said, because he'd urged them, both verbally and in writing, to follow the Sunshine Law.

Eckersley sued the state for wrongful termination in January 2008. The case was settled last year. Total cost to Missouri taxpayers, including legal fees: about $1.8 million.

Neither side ever backed down from its accusations.

"I'm not pretending we didn't play hardball," Martin says. "He was threatening the governor of the state of Missouri, and he was lying."

Eckersley, for his part, is running for Congress in southwest Missouri, touting his record as a "whistle blower."

"I think he's despicable," Eckersley says of Martin. "He has no place in public service."

Whatever the merits of Eckersley's legal claim, his settlement left a critical issue unresolved: Did Ed Martin and others in the governor's office who deleted their e-mails knowingly violate the Sunshine Law?

On November 15, 2007, Attorney General Jay Nixon appointed special investigators to look into the matter. They requested to review some 60,000 government e-mails.

Five days later, Martin resigned as chief of staff.

"I'd become such a lightning rod," he explains today. "I said, 'This may be a good time for me to go.'"

Blunt wrangled with the investigators for a year, then finally agreed to release the records free of charge. When reporters pored over them, they discovered hundreds of e-mails responsive to Tony Messenger's original request. Martin had deleted them — before, he says, the request came in — but they'd been retained on backup tapes.

"I did not, and I don't think anybody did think, that a normal request for Sunshine information required retrieval from the backup tapes," Martin later said in a deposition.

Interestingly, when Messenger finally got his hands on Martin's e-mails — the ones the governor's office fought so hard to protect — the worst he could write was that they were "questionably relevant to state business." The scandal, it turned out, had more to do with Blunt's resistance to releasing the e-mails, than their actual content.

Indeed, the investigators concluded in February 2009 that the governor's record retention policies had been "insufficient" and "not in compliance" with the Sunshine Law, due to unsound legal advice.

However, special attorney general Louis Leonatti testified in court: "I have looked at 1,500 pages of documents. I have been involved in twelve depositions. I have not seen anything to indicate any criminal conduct."

Martin says the investigators' final report vindicates him. "I assure you," he tells RFT, "if you get investigated by the attorney general, and they find something you've done that was wrong, you'll be prosecuted."

And though Martin left state government in the wake of Memogate, he never left the spotlight.

On the eve of President Barack Obama's election, an independent political committee called the American Issues Project ran ads linking Obama to "'70s radical" William Ayers. Martin was the group's founder.

When the Belgium company InBev geared up to take over Anheuser-Busch in 2008, Martin launched his "Save AB" nonprofit to "fight the foreign invasion." Last year, the group's website began pointing visitors to Martin's congressional campaign. (His critics accused him of violating federal election rules.)

But the Carnahan campaign won't let anyone forget about Memogate. It has created a Flash video game modeled after Pac-Man that they call Hackman: Ed Martin's head darts around gobbling up e-mails. Players rack up not points, but "tax dollars wasted."

Hackman may be a first in America: the video-game attack ad.

Martin fancies himself an outsider in this race. His ads portray him as someone who's never run for office and will bring greater transparency to government. Yet Memogate was the ultimate insider controversy, and Martin was right at its center. The most charitable interpretation, Democrats say, is that Martin violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the Sunshine Law.

Not that it will mean anything to undecided voters, suggests political science professor George Connor.

"There are two sides to that scandal," he says. "I cannot believe that it will have any impact on this race. [Memogate] is all about firing up the base."

A crowd of about 400 people chants "Ed! Ed! Ed! Ed!" as all three 3rd District candidates file into an Arnold gymnasium for a debate on the evening of September 30. Ed Martin beams like a child just pinned with a blue ribbon, his grin so wide it practically touches the shoulders of his opponents, Russ Carnahan and Nicholas Ivanovich of the Constitution Party. This crowd is Martin's crowd.

Even in the comfort of his office, Martin squirms incessantly. He grabs things off his desk and bends them. He runs his hand up and down the back of his head and scratches his arm. He once checked his cell phone in mid-sentence, then tossed it across the room to avoid temptation of checking it again.

Supporters have warned him not to fidget, and so tonight, with hundreds watching, he sits almost woodenly.

But rhetorically, he keeps jumping off the top ropes for the body slam.

Asked about abortion, Carnahan stresses the need to prevent unwanted pregnancies, to render abortion a "rare choice."

He passes the mic to Martin. They make almost no eye contact this entire evening.

"I'm not sure whether he's using Pelosi talking points or not," Martin booms over the P.A. system, "but it sounds like he's saying he's for abortion."

Carnahan gets asked for his take on the military's "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy. Just like many generals, he says, he doesn't support it. America needs more soldiers, he explains. We shouldn't be excluding capable and willing patriots.

Martin, emboldened by the reaction so far, responds by swinging for the fences: "I'm here for the translation: Congressman Carnahan supports gay marriage."

The crowd seems confused. A titter spreads. The moderator warns Martin to stay on topic.

"I'm getting there," he assures her.

Later, in private, Martin will admit that he leapt too far ahead. He sometimes does that in his race to score points.

"I was pummeling him," Martin says. "I gotta credit him for discipline. He's either numbed, or he's disciplined."

After the debate, Martin gets mobbed by well-wishers. He hugs a lot of old ladies. Many are volunteers for his campaign. He knows their first names.

"Ed Martin walks into a room, and it's like he's walking into a high school reunion," Tea Party cofounder Bill Hennessy observes. "He just loves people. You can't cover it up."

Martin and his entourage are the last people to leave the gymnasium. Near the door, he shakes the hand of two young employees of the recreation center.

"Hi, I'm Ed Martin," he says.

One of them, a short girl whose smile reveals braces, tells RFT that Martin introduced himself on the way in, too.

But she can't help Martin. She's in high school. Not old enough to vote.

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