The candidates' agendas were plain in Thursday's Missouri Senate debate: Sen. Claire McCaskill sought to come off as moderate while her challenger, Rep. Todd Akin, sought to tie an Obama friendship bracelet around her wrist.
Their clash at Clayton High School in St. Louis followed the same script their campaign has taken since Akin won his primary, rife with barbs about health care reform, Medicare, the 2009 stimulus bill--all levied, on both sides, as accusations of hyper-partisanship.
"It's moderate vs. conservative, moderate vs. extreme," McCaskill said during her opening remarks.
"Claire McCaskill was the first to endorse Barack Obama, and she was a strong right hand passing legislation, voting with him 98 percent of the time," Akin said during his.
But aside from those staid themes in this reddening purple state, McCaskill debuted a new attack--that Akin personally pays women less than men--and Akin endured a mini-stumble reminiscent of Rick Perry's infamous "oops," while appearing to have recovered publicly from the "legitimate rape" comment that shook his campaign.
MCCASKILL'S NEW ATTACK
McCaskill debuted a brand new attack line against Akin in the final moments of their debate on Thursday: that as a boss, Akin pays women less than men.
"He supports the boss being able to decide whether you get paid less just because you're a woman," McCaskill said during her closing remarks. "And if you look at Congressman Akin's office, he's a boss that does that: His women staff make 23.4 percent less than the men in his office."
McCaskill's campaign blasted out a press release as McCaskill said it, citing data from the congressional staff-salary database LegiStorm culled from 2001-2010. Akin's campaign and congressional office have not yet responded to e-mails seeking comment.
It was the first time McCaskill or her campaign had lodged this accusation--the incumbent's latest attempt to rally female voters against her opponent.
Akin's congressional office said it is not true that Akin pays women less categorically and pointed to the last quarter, in which women in Akin's office made more than men by $3,158 on average over four months, according to LegiStorm data pulled by Akin's office Thursday night.
"I think it's interesting that an auditor would chop off the last several years," said Akin's communications director and district director, Steve Taylor, referencing McCaskill's career as Missouri state auditor before here 2006 election to the Senate. Taylor called the accounting "somewhat disingenuous."
"If it did occur, it was not a matter of policy, because we see that's not the case now ... There's been no change in policy in the Akin office, there's been no change in environment," Taylor said. "If you look at what's going on now, that really dispels the notion that there's a policy of paying female workers less."
Despite the national headlines Akin drew with his "legitimate rape" comments, McCaskill and her campaign initially held back, making little noise about that comment until the expiration of Akin's deadline to withdraw from the race on Sept. 25. Since then, McCaskill has appealed to women aggressively by hitting Akin, unleashing a suite of TV ads in which sexual-assault survivors discuss their reactions to Akin's comment.
A RICK PERRY REPLAY?
"We should stop giving money to Libya, to Pakistan, and to one other country," Akin said, trailing off and unable to remember the third.
"Syria," McCaskill interjected.
Well, it wasn't quite a Rick Perry "oops" moment, but Akin's forgetfulness did raise its specter as the two sparred over foreign policy and foreign aid.
RandPAC, a group supporting Sen. Rand Paul, released a TV ad this week attacking McCaskill for voting to send aid to Egypt, Libya, and Pakistan. So neither of them were exactly right.
AKIN ASKED ABOUT 'RAPE' COMMENT, KIND OF
On the hanging topic of his infamous "rape" comment, Akin has gone from abject apologies to comfortable retort.
The word "rape" was not mentioned in any question at the debate, but the candidates were asked what the national press will say about Missouri voters if Akin wins.
"I've had a chance to travel for 18 months, and I've got a pretty good sense of where people are," Akin said. "My views are pretty much in sync with the voters of this state, and what's more, I've opposed the failed record and the failed policies which have given us the unemployment, the lack of jobs, and other miscellaneous problems such as gasoline prices doubling."
It's clear if Akin has rebounded in popularity since his rape comment since no pollsters deemed reliable by ABC News have polled potential voters in Missouri.
On Wednesday the Wall Street Journal reported that Akin has found a comfort zone in the socially conservative, largely Evangelical base he enjoyed before those comments. His campaign told ABC News in September that crowds were greeting him warmly, not even asking him about "legitimate rape" or why he said it. He has acknowledged the controversy in a TV ad, saying directly to camera, "My six-second mistake is well known, but Claire McCaskill's six-year record is something you should know ... "
On Thursday night, Akin appeared comfortable answering the obliquely phrased question before a larger audience, making the same argument he has for months: That Missouri voters agree with him on big issues like health care, the stimulus, and dissatisfaction with the economy under President Obama.
SAME OLD PLAYBOOK
Much of Thursday's debate followed a familiar theme: Akin condemning McCaskill's votes for big Democratic bills and reminding voters that she received a bit of stimulus money herself.
"She transferred $39 million to her home business," Akin said, repeating a claim made by his campaign earlier this month. "She cut funding for vets and teachers, but managed to get a million dollars for her home business."
McCaskill's husband's real estate partnership benefited from low-income housing rent assistance funded by the stimulus bill through USDA or the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Associated Press has reported. McCaskill's campaign has said that her husband's partnership was owed money under preexisting contracts funded by stimulus provisions to fill budget gaps at HUD, and that a small fraction of that money made it into his bank account.
The candidates hit each other on Medicare, replaying the presidential-race dispute over the Affordable Care Act's $716 billion in spending reductions and the Ryan budget's gradual voucherization.
McCaskill boasted her moderate credentials throughout, hitting Akin on his erstwhile support for earmarks; name-checking conservative Sen. Jim DeMint, with whom she joined to ban them in the Senate; and distancing herself from President Obama.
"I was disappointed when the president wouldn't support my spending cap. He was disappointed when I wouldn't go along with cap and trade. I was disappointed when he refused to quickly approve the Keystone Pipeline," McCaskill said. "For six solid years, I've been smack-dab in the middle."
An early supporter of Obama over then-senator Hillary Clinton in 2008, McCaskill has paid a price on the campaign trail in 2012, as Akin has reminded voters of her endorsement. Obama is expected to lose Missouri handily to Mitt Romney.
BASEBALL FANS DEFINITELY DID NOT WATCH
The 7 p.m. debate began as Game 4 of MLB's National League Championship Series was starting 10 miles away at Busch Stadium, where the St. Louis Cardinals played at home against the San Francisco Giants.
This meant that any baseball fans in the St. Louis area all but certainly skipped this debate. McCaskill acknowledged as much in her opening remarks.
"I know the audience isn't supposed to make noises, but if the audience could hold up fingers for the Cardinals score, that would be great," McCaskill said. "If you're watching this at home having taped it, I understand completely."
Hopefully, Missouri's undecided baseball fans all have DVR.