The big issue in Kansas' U.S. Senate race is which of two veteran Republican congressmen will fight hardest — and loudest — against President Barack Obama's agenda.
The fiery contest is unusual in a state where politicians are better known for being polite. It also underscores Republicans' national strategy in 2010 — find candidates who'll give Obama and his fellow Democrats no quarter whatsoever.
Few races offer a more blunt example of the blueprint than Tuesday's primary fight between U.S. Reps. Jerry Moran and Todd Tiahrt. Neither has the burden of courting moderates, and because Democrats aren't likely to mount a serious challenge, the Republican nominee is all but certain to win in the general election in this GOP-leaning state.
"I think the mood is, we need a fighter," said Greg Ward, a Tonganoxie real estate agent who leads the tea-party aligned Kansas Sovereignty Coalition, whose daughter is a Tiahrt campaign staffer. "We need somebody that's got more backbone than just the right ideas and the right voting record."
If voters wanted to see fighters, the Moran-Tiahrt race has become a nasty brawl. Together they have spent more than $5 million trying to persuade GOP conservatives and tea party participants that small differences in their records are crucial.
Each campaign accuses the other of dirty tactics, trading allegations of sanctioning unethical "push" polling and issuing threats of political retribution.
Former White House adviser Karl Rove has even weighed in on Tiahrt's side, accusing Moran of trying to barter a vote in 2001 for a campaign fundraiser, which Moran and his staff emphatically say isn't true.
And Paul Moore, a former manager who says he was pushed out of the Moran campaign, recently endorsed Tiahrt publicly. Moran described Moore as disgruntled.
Moore forwarded an e-mail to The Associated Press sent to him from Moran's Blackberry on March 12 that read, "What about significantly reducing the use of the word 'conservative?'"
"I continue to hear complaints," the e-mail said. "Rather focus on an anti Washington/reform campaign. Something moderates and conservatives can agree on."
Scott Howell, Moran's media consultant, described it as desperate "Hail Mary" by the Tiahrt camp and said Moran's voting record shows he's a consistent conservative.
Moran has represented the sprawling 1st Congressional District of western and central Kansas since 1997. He entered the race as the leader, having transferred $2.4 million from his House campaign account, to Tiahrt's $1 million. Many Republicans still think he'll win.
Asked whether he thinks Moran will fight hard for conservative values, Adam York, a 20-year-old Kansas State University history student, said: "I have no doubts."
Moran and his aides said they would have stuck with positive television ads, had Tiahrt not attacked him. Moran calls the race "one of the ugliest campaigns in the country."
"It's not the campaign I would like to see, but it's the campaign we were forced to run because of the attacks," Moran said after a recent town hall meeting at a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in the Kansas City suburb of Lenexa.
Tiahrt's camp scoffs at such statements, pointing to Moran mailers portraying Tiahrt as a budget-earmarking hypocrite. Tiahrt bristles at Moran's suggestion that he's gone Washington in part because he moved his family to the area.
Since 1995, Tiahrt has represented the 4th District of south-central Kansas, centered on Wichita and its aviation industry. He's a House Appropriations Committee member and closer to House GOP leaders than Moran.
Tiahrt said what Moran views as attacks are efforts to give Kansans a true picture of Moran's career.
"Jerry has had a lot of money to talk about his election-year conversion to being a conservative," Tiahrt said in an interview.
They're seeking the seat of Sam Brownback, a conservative Republican who's running for governor instead of another term in the Senate. A third candidate, Tom Little, a Mound City accountant, also is campaigning.
None of the five Democrats running is as well-known or as well-financed as Moran or Tiahrt, and Kansas hasn't elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1932. That's freed Moran and Tiahrt to run hard to the right — and throw some hard elbows.
"I anticipated that it would bare-knuckled, but it's spinning a little out of control," Tim Shallenburger, a former Kansas GOP chairman and state treasurer.
Moran gets an "A" grade from the National Rifle Association; Tiahrt's score is "A+." Neither has ever broken with the National Right to Life Committee on abortion votes while in Congress. Moran's lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union is almost 92 percent; Tiahrt's is 95 percent.
Tiahrt's campaign has trumpeted backing from Sarah Palin, while Moran's campaign promotes endorsements from conservative GOP senators like Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.
Still, they've scrapped over taxes and whether a 2003 vote against a GOP budget resolution means Moran was lukewarm in supporting tax cuts championed by President George W. Bush. They've argued about immigration and whether Tiahrt's now-repudiated backing of bills to help some young illegal immigrants with college tuition was support for amnesty.
Yet the race is more about which congressman will resist Obama's agenda more aggressively.
Chuck Henderson, a member of the Flint Hills Tea Party in Manhattan, acknowledged it's difficult to "get as much as a cigarette paper between the two of them."
Jerry Moran's campaign: http://www.moranforkansas.com/
Todd Tiahrt's campaign: http://www.toddtiahrt.com/
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