McCaskill launches rural Missouri town hall meetings in bid to stake out the middle

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Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., asks a question during a hearing held by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on June 6, 2017. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

SULLIVAN, Mo. • A year out from what could be the toughest election fight of her life, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., sought to burnish her centrist credentials Friday, recounting to a crowd in his small rural town her efforts at bipartisan legislation in Washington, slamming over-regulation by the government and stressing that she doesn’t think America can afford a Bernie Sanders-style single-payer national health care system.

McCaskill next year will seek her third Senate term in a state that has moved sharply to the right since she first took office. Targeted as one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the nation, she is using the August Senate recess to visit more than two-dozen mostly rural communities around the state to hammer home her long-cultivated political persona as a moderate with a personal history that started in what is now solid red rural Missouri.

"I’m doing these in places where I’m not that popular," McCaskill told about 80 people who gathered for a "town hall" meeting with her at the Sullivan Senior Center in this town of about 7,000 people 65 miles southwest of St. Louis. "I really think it’s important that I go places and hear from people who don’t necessarily agree with me."

But in fact, the audience of mostly senior citizens who showed up for the open event appeared to be, if anything, to McCaskill’s left on several issues — particularly the issue of President Donald Trump.

When one of them quipped that Trump might have been "separated at birth" from North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un, McCaskill declined to join in the room-wide laughter and changed the subject. When one of the written audience questions asked, "How do we stop Trump from destroying our country and the world?," McCaskill responded with similar reserve.

"He was duly elected president of the United States and I have an obligation to work with him," she told them. She went on to recount talks she has had with First Daughter Ivanka Trump and others in the administration on issues like maternal leave and infrastructure.

However, McCaskill also warned that Trump’s "rhetorical war" with Jong-Un plays into the dictator’s hand. "This is great for him (Jong-Un) politically," she said.

Trump in November won Missouri by almost 20 percentage points over Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, with whom McCaskill was strongly allied during the campaign.

McCaskill also was targeted nationally in 2012, but ended up winning re-election easily after the GOP nominee, then-U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, made controversial comments about rape and pregnancy that lost him support across the political spectrum.

Few in the Democratic Party think McCaskill will get so lucky this time. Several serious Republicans are lining up for the party nomination, with national GOP figures backing a possible bid by Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley.

McCaskill’s Friday schedule also had planned town halls in Cuba, Potosi and Farmington.

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