By DAVID A. LIEB
SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (AP) - Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill ventured into Republican-leaning southern Missouri on Thursday, warning voters that challenger Todd Akin would be part of a "very small caucus of extremists" if elected to the Senate and launching a new ad, titled, "Unfit," featuring video of GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney denouncing Akin.
With polls consistently showing Romney ahead of Democratic President Barack Obama in Missouri, McCaskill's strategy is to persuade thousands of GOP voters next Tuesday that it's OK to split their ticket and send a Democrat back to the Senate.
"I am not afraid to work across the aisle with my Republican colleagues. I'm proud to do it," she said.
McCaskill's cross-state tour in her big blue RV was reminiscent of her closing-week drive six years ago, when McCaskill narrowly unseated GOP Sen. Jim Talent. This time, it's Akin, a suburban St. Louis congressman, who is trying to oust McCaskill by highlighting her support for Obama and what Akin describes as his big-government policies such as the 2009 stimulus act and 2010 health care law.
Akin had been favored to win until he remarked in a TV interview that aired Aug. 19 that women's bodies have ways of avoiding pregnancy in "legitimate rape." Though he apologized, Akin refused calls by Romney and other top national Republicans to drop out of the race. On Thursday, Akin launched a new ad featuring praise for his candidacy from a self-described single mother who declares on camera that she had an abortion and was raped in the past.
The race is being closely-watched in the broader fight for control of the Senate. Republicans must gain four seats to win the majority if Obama is reelected, or net three if Romney prevails.
Without Romney's support, Akin has spent the past two days campaigning with former GOP presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich and then took most of Thursday off to focus on fundraising and private meetings. But he was getting backing from the Republican-leaning Now or Never Political Action Committee, which launched a $1 million TV ad campaign urging Romney supporters to vote for Akin so that he could help implement the Republican presidential hopeful's agenda.
The group, which backed Akin rival Sarah Steelman in Missouri's GOP primary, also has run ads aiding Republican Senate candidates in tight races in Arizona, Montana, North Dakota and Ohio. It reported less than $80,000 remaining in its account as of Oct. 17. The source of the new money for the pro-Akin had was not clear, but PAC spokesman Tyler Harber said it did not come from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which dropped plans for its own Missouri ads after Akin's rape remark.
McCaskill called the Now or Never ad "ironic," noting that Romney had not only shunned Akin but that Akin had never enthusiastically embraced Romney. McCaskill's ad also features video of Arizona Sen. John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential candidate, saying of Akin: "Frankly, he would not be welcome by Republicans in the United States Senate."
McCaskill used a high school in the rural town of Lebanon - the hometown of her mother, who died Monday - as a backdrop for a Thursday campaign event highlighting Akin's desire to abolish the Department of Education.
"I see congressman Akin, if he were to become a United States senator, as someone who would be part of a very small caucus of extremists," said McCaskill, who casts herself as a moderate. "He would not be part of a bipartisan middle that could find solutions to problems."
Akin spokesman Ryan Hite said the congressman is "willing to work to solve problems once he enters the Senate."
"He's not going to walk in with a grudge, nor is he going to enter as some extreme figure as McCaskill would paint him," Hite said.
He noted that some Republicans already have welcomed Akin. The Missouri Republican Party is spending about $387,000 to help run some of Akin's TV ads, according to Akin's campaign. But the state party and the National Republican Senatorial Committee both declined to comment about the original source of that money.
At her campaign stop in Lebanon, McCaskill was confronted by Gary Burgess, who said he was a 61-year-old Vietnam veteran.
"I know you're an Obama man, and I'm not," said Burgess, who then declared to anyone listening: "Don't vote for her."
But a mere two hours later, after a speech at a Springfield Veterans of Foreign Wars post, McCaskill was approached by another Army veteran. Chris Boyajian, a 40-year-old Iraqi War veteran, pleaded for help trying to get medical benefits and military honors that he believed he was due. McCaskill replied: "We can help you."
On the way out of the VFW post, McCaskill added her signature to a large appreciation poster for returning troops. She wrote: "I'm proud to have your back."
McCaskill has no illusions about winning over a majority of rural Missouri voters. Her goal is merely to narrow the margin there while picking up strong support in the St. Louis and Kansas City areas. Six years ago, for example, McCaskill carried less than 43 percent of the vote in Springfield's home county and less than 37 percent in Lebanon's home county.
As she arrived Thursday in Lebanon, McCaskill received a hug and encouragement from Betty Donnelly, 86, a longtime friend of her mother's.
"Her mother told her a long time ago that you have to get out in the little towns - you have to work the people," Donnelly said.
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