CAPE GIRARDEAU, MO. — CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. -- At a Q-and-A session with voters here the other night, a woman asked Democratic Rep. Alan Wheat why he wasn't responding on television to hard-hitting, negative ads being aired by former Republican Gov. John Ashcroft, his opponent for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by the retiring Republican John Danforth.
"For a strategic reason, we decided not to respond," Wheat replied. "The strategic reason is -- we're broke."
The audience laughed, but the situation is no joke for Wheat, who is running a distinctly uphill race against the well-heeled Ashcroft. A tough Democratic primary fight drained Wheat's campaign treasury while Ashcroft breezed to the GOP nomination with only token opposition, enabling him to conserve his resources.
The result, says Ashcroft's campaign manager, David Ayres, has been a relentless television hammering of Wheat "in the clear" -- that is, unanswered by the Wheat campaign. A response is particularly imperative, Wheat campaign manager Julie Gibson acknowledges, because the Ashcroft ads are so negative. They remind voters that Wheat wrote 86 overdrafts -- the ad not surprisingly calls them "bounced checks" -- in the House banking scandal of a few years ago, and voted to increase his own pay.
Another ad portrays Wheat as soft on crime, a burning issue here as everywhere else. "As governor, it was a rather sobering thing that I had to do in terms of the death penalty," Ashcroft says in the ad. "We executed a number of people when I was governor. I noticed that all of them had committed crimes more than 10 years before the execution. That's simply too long."
A narrator then picks it up: "Alan Wheat disagrees. He opposes the death penalty and voted against speeding up appeals. And Wheat voted against making violent criminals serve at least 85 percent of their sentence." Wheat says such ads "distort" his record, but until now he has not had the resources to reply.
When another woman at a Jackson County Democratic Committee meeting in nearby Jackson raised the same question about not responding, Wheat assured her the situation was about to change. His campaign is getting half of the $500,000 raised by President Clinton last weekend at a Kansas City fund-raiser, he said, so his own TV attack would start within days.
His ads, Wheat said, will examine Ashcroft's public record and ethical behavior as governor. A sample is a Wheat stump charge that Ashcroft as governor used the state-owned jet plane for 18 flights to his vacation home only an hour's drive from the state capital in Jefferson City. "Some fiscal conservative," Wheat said. "I think John Ashcroft would book the Concorde to fly from downtown St. Louis to his law office in Clayton [an adjoining suburb]."
Wheat, however, is likely to need heavier ammunition to buck the anti-Washington tide that Ashcroft seeks to exploit against the 12-year House member seeking to become Missouri's first black statewide officeholder. Wheat's race is not and will not be an issue, Ayres says.
Although President Clinton has provided a major financial transfusion to Wheat's campaign, there is no great pressure on him to come to Missouri again before November. "Clinton's numbers are not great here right now," says Gibson. "I'm sure he's going to focus his efforts on other states."
Ayres calls Clinton "a looming factor who casts a shadow over the entire election in this state." Ashcroft, however, says, "I doubt if Clinton's record is as much a problem for Wheat as it is somewhere else. Congressman Wheat is demonstrably more liberal than Clinton is," suggesting that Wheat's own record is his real problem, not any association with Clinton. Ashcroft does note, though, that Wheat has a higher record of support for Clinton than did Rep. Mike Synar, recently defeated in his Oklahoma primary.
One bright spot for the Democrats, if it can be called that, is that they have not really counted on wresting Danforth's seat from the GOP in their calculations to keep control of the Senate. So a Wheat upset would be a windfall, though the odds seem against it right now.