Ashcroft Calls for TV Debates Senate Fight Will Be Pivotal to Both Parties

Article excerpt

The Democratic Senate primary may have been too close to call late Tuesday, but the Republican nominee - former Gov. John Ashcroft - said it didn't matter whether he ran against Rep. Alan Wheat or Jackson County Executive Marsha Murphy.

Hours before the polls closed at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Ashcroft issued a challenge to the Democratic winner for a series of televised debates. He said such meetings would allow large numbers of Missourians to contrast the nominees' differing stances.

Meanwhile the Democrats made it clear Tuesday that their chief issue this fall will be Ashcroft himself.

Ashcroft said he had strong philosophical differences with Murphy and with Wheat. Another difference, Ashcroft said, is the urban background of both Democrats. That means they can't understand the problems of all Missourians, Ashcroft said, emphasizing that he has visited every one of the state's 114 counties this year.

"I really want to be issue-focused in this campaign," Ashcroft added.

The Democrats want one of their own to replace retiring Sen. John C. Danforth, a Republican.

"We can't afford six years of Ashcroft," said a spokesman for Gov. Mel Carnahan, the Democrat who last year succeeded Ashcroft, who served two terms.

Carnahan will campaign vigorously for Wheat and will emphasize to voters what he sees as Ashcroft's shortcomings, said spokesman Chris Sifford.

Carnahan contends that Ashcroft is to blame for the $315 billion education tax hike that Carnahan pushed through the Legislature last year. "The funding for public schools was so bad that more than 100 districts sued the state," said Carnahan's spokesman, Chris Sifford.

In response, Ashcroft said that Carnahan and his allies "want to divert attention from the state scene right now." He was referring to the controversies in Jefferson City involving two prominent Democrats, Secretary of State Judith Moriarty and state House Speaker Bob Griffin.

And Ashcroft and state Republican leaders noted that he has a strong record of attracting voter support. He was re-elected governor in 1988 with 65 percent of the vote. His average in four statewide victories is more than 60 percent, said state GOP executive director Scott Gallagher.

Such showings, Republicans said, demonstrates that Ashcroft's appeal includes the state's mainstream voters - and not just conservatives.

If the Democrats want to campaign on Ashcroft's record, he'll do well, Gallagher said. "Many Missourians would love to go back to Ashcroft as governor."

While state issues may be the candidates' focus, the race itself is of national importance, both parties say.

The GOP is counting on keeping Missouri in its column, with party leaders enthusiastically predicting that Republicans could take over the Senate for the first time in a decade, because President Bill Clinton is seen as being in trouble with voters.

Missouri is one of nine open Senate seats this year.

"It is right now one of the pivotal states for the Democrats in 1994," said Don Foley, executive director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "There's a number of states where we are not as hopeful" of a Democratic win in November.

To underscore Missouri's importance, Foley flew into Kansas City on Tuesday night to be with the Democrats' primary winner. …