All hell broke loose when Richard Gephardt decided that he had served long enough (28 years, to be exact) in Congress. In bidding farewell to a job he probably could have retained for life, the son of a St. Louis milk-truck driver, who rose as high as House Minority Leader, set in motion a mad scramble to capture the nomination to one of the nation's safer Democratic seats.
A gaggle of ten Democratic contenders tossed their sweaty hats into the ring, and next Tuesday's primary winner is almost certain to be christened the victor in the November 2 general election.
But who will win this harshly contested battle? Eighteen months after the 63-year-old Gephardt made his retirement announcement, no clear favorite has emerged. State Representative Russ Carnahan, former State Representative Joan Barry, State Senator Steve Stoll, and Washington University political-science instructor Jeff Smith are considered the front-runners in the Third District free-for-all -- but beyond that it's anyone's guess.
"Honestly, I can't tell you right now who's ahead," says Larry Handlin, who runs the local-politics Web site Blog Saint Louis (http://bsl.archpundit.com) and is considered an authoritative political handicapper. "It's goofy with these ten different people."
Some candidates have gone to great lengths to distinguish themselves from the pack, sometimes resorting to rather eccentric tactics.
Take the campaign game plan (please) of Corey Mohn, who runs a planning firm. Early in the year Mohn chose to print up an incendiary batch of bumper stickers that read, "Blow It Out Your Ashcroft." The heavy-handed idea was to highlight Mohn's opposition to the Patriot Act.
"But we started it the same month that Ashcroft went into intensive care," Mohn explains. "He got pancreatitis, so we pulled the promotion, because that would just be too low."
Circuit Clerk Mariano Favazza announced early on that he would give campaign donors their money back if they felt he didn't live up to his campaign promises while in office. Despite the gimmick, Favazza has fallen far behind the crowd in fund-raising, and his main campaign asset now seems to be a red, white and blue belt with his name sewn into it that his neighbor made for him.
"After she put all the hours in it -- she said I should lose some weight because it would take less time -- I promised I would wear it whenever I could," he says. "At the end of the damn election, when we win, I'm gonna sell this thing to the highest bidder to start the November campaign fund."
Other candidates have taken to emphasizing personal qualities -- qualities that seem to emphasize brawn over brains.
Mike Evans, who owns an event-production company, suggested that the Riverfront Times conduct a poll to determine the sexiest candidate in the race. (One can only assume he thought he would come out on top.) Then he dropped out of the race.
Jeff Smith, whose campaign events have included a bike ride from the U. City Loop to Ste. Genevieve, seems to prefer that prowess on the basketball court decide the primary. "I'll play everyone one-on-one and call off the election," he says, only half-kidding, "if they agree to abide by the results of the game."
The candidates need to do everything possible to get attention because, even a week before the race comes to a merciful end, a large percentage of voters -- Handlin estimates 25 percent -- are up in the air about who they'll chose to become Gephardt's apparent successor. The most recent available poll showed Carnahan with a big lead, but that poll was conducted by his campaign -- and it was four months ago.
Despite the fact that the district was tilted even more heavily Democratic by redistricting after the 2000 election, the types of Democrats vary widely -- from the more socially conservative voters of Ste. Genevieve and Jefferson counties to the more liberal conclaves in St. Louis city and county.
Pro-life Joan Barry is counting on the strength of her south-county ties, while Steve Stoll, also pro-life, might be in a position to snag votes not necessarily inclined to vote Democratic. A pro-gun advocate, Stoll favors the amendment banning gay marriage, which will also be on the August 3 ballot.
The name recognition of Mel and Jean Carnahan's son has been both a help and a hindrance to his campaign. It has enabled him to pick up the endorsements of many top state officials, but it has caused the other candidates to gang up on him -- a successful strategy employed by Howard Dean's presidential competitors.
Campaign gaffes have also aided Carnahan's critics. His original campaign office was located in the First District. Then he angered organized labor by shopping for campaign supplies at the union-unfriendly Sam's Club. ("One of the state reps from St. Louis County told me if that was true he was going to kick his ass," says Handlin. "I'm not sure he was kidding.")
A more serious error was a campaign television ad that claimed Carnahan was "the only Democrat who stood up to the gun lobby and voted against the conceal-and-carry law." The campaign later said it would change the ad after conceding that Barry also voted against a 2002 concealed-carry bill.
Though he's raised more than any of the other candidates (more than $525,000), according to the second-quarter filing with the Federal Election Commission in June, in the final electoral sprint to the finish line, Carnahan has less cash on hand ($36,000) than rival Jeff Smith.
As of press time, Carnahan and Washington University associate dean Mark Smith were the only two campaigns to air television ads (the latter's campaign got a late boost by winning the Post-Dispatch's endorsement). Other campaigns said that they would use more targeted techniques to reach voters. Jeff Smith was focusing on mailings; Barry's campaign said she would be door-belling. Stoll, meanwhile, plans to continue raising money into the final days.
Failed Democratic presidential candidates also seem to be finding their way into the fray. While Stoll touted his endorsement from Bill Bradley and Jeff Smith played up his from Howard Dean, Mohn was trying to get Dennis Kucinich to come to town on his behalf. (Other unlikely celebrity endorsements and financial contributors to the campaigns over the past few months have been documented in this paper's Unreal column.)
As strange as the campaign has been, it could have been stranger. "It actually seems pretty calm compared to the Senate race in Illinois," notes Handlin.