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Missouri Senate candidates turn to bare-knuckled politics

It was supposed to be a great political matchup -- a clash of ideologies, a contest of proposed remedies to the farm crisis, the trade crisis, and all the other crises that have walloped the Midwestern economy. Yet in the final days of the race for the Missouri Senate seat being vacated by retiring Democrat Thomas F. Eagleton, what are Democrat Harriett Woods and Republican Christopher (Kit) Bond arguing about?

Whether former Governor Bond purposefully misrepresented remarks made by Lieutenant Governor Woods in his television ads. Whether Mrs. Woods is too strident in her attacks on Mr. Bond.

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``It's turning some people off,'' says Jim Spain, a Democratic farm-district representative in the state legislature. ``When there's no overarching issue,'' explains Woods, ``character becomes the issue.''

The contest between Bond and Woods, one of the tightest and most closely watched Senate races in the country, underscores the fact that this is a year in which campaigns will rise or fall on local rather than national concerns.

As in a number of other tight races, debate over national issues has been pushed into the background by a tussle over more parochial concerns. The Missouri race has become personal and sometimes bitter.

``It's getting worse every year -- the inevitable result of the increasing preeminence of television in the election process,'' Senator Eagleton says. ``The campaign people try to squeeze the most impact they can in 30 seconds, and that usually means a slam on the other person.''

In fact, a major point of debate has been over both candidate's television commercials. Woods aired a TV spot in late June that showed a farmer crying as he explained how he was foreclosed by a company that Bond serves as a board member. The ad provoked outrage from Republicans and editorial writers, who charged Woods with capitalizing on the farmer's plight for political ends. The reaction put Woods on the defensive.

Now Bond is on the spot for airing a series of TV commercials alleging that Woods is weak on nuclear arms control verification and that she ``trusts the Russians.'' The ads were based on remarks Woods made to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. However, both Woods and the newspaper say that Bond misconstrued the remarks.

The final televised debate between Woods and Bond on Friday was dominated by an argument over whether Bond had deliberately misused Woods' comments. Woods called Bond a liar, labeling the ads ``outrageous conduct for someone running for the Senate'' and demanded that they be taken off the air. Bond stood by his latest ad, and called Woods's complaints ``curious in the light of other commercials she has run.''

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Woods also criticizes Bond for circulating flyers linking her with ``Hanoi Jane'' Fonda and pointing out that two Woods campaign contributors met with Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega in Los Angeles in 1984. Bond criticizes Woods for inaccurately describing an antiabortion amendment that he supports and she opposes.

Bond, a moderate Republican, was a popular two-term governor who left office in 1984. Woods, a liberal Democrat, was a state senator who came within a whisker of defeating Republican Sen. John Danforth in 1982 before her election as lieutenant governor two years ago.

They differ sharply on issues. Woods favors a moratorium on farm foreclosures until loans can be restructured, which Bonds says would destroy the farmers' future ability to get credit. Bond supports both aid to the contras and the Contadora peace talks, which Woods derides as his ``contra-Contadora-contradiction.''

But broader issues have given way to the verbal sparring, and polls have shown Missouri voters being swayed by intuition as much as anything else. Playing to that, Bond has run ads emphasizing his six-generation heritage in Missouri. Polls have given him the edge and show Woods as being hurt from the perception that she has been the more negative of the two.

Bond forces hope to rack up a solid victory in the Republican stronghold of St. Louis County. Democrats hope to hold Republican margins there to a minimum while running strongly in rural areas.

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