MCPHERSON, Kan. Driving through central Kansas, amid the Flint Hills, prairie grasses, hay fields and cow pastures, there is little to conjure up images of a sparkling yellow brick road, Emerald City or ruby slippers. But on the campaign trail here, Wizard of Oz references are always appreciated.
When Rep. Todd Tiahrt stopped in last week for a town hall, he couldnt resist comparing his battle against fellow Rep. Jerry Moran for the Republican Senate nomination to a scene in the epic movie where the true identity of the wizard is revealed.
There are some differences, and Im just kind of pulling the curtains back like Dorothy did in the Wizard of Oz, he told the audience gathered at the Well, a Christian bookstore, gift shop and cafe. Im pulling the curtain back on Jerry Moran. Hes a good man, but hes not a good conservative. And I dont think hed be a good Senator.
McPherson (pronounced Mc-fer-son, because, as they say here, theres no fear in McPherson) is in the Big First the expansive western House district that Moran has represented since 1996.
Tiahrts message seemed to be received favorably among the 30 or so Moran constituents who showed up. But with only three weeks before the Aug. 3 primary, time is running short for Tiahrts efforts to expose what he argues is the real Moran the man who wants to be popular [so] he puts his finger in the air to the broader statewide audience.
Moran has consistently led in fundraising and in most polls. A SurveyUSA poll done recently showed him 20 points ahead of Tiahrt, whose campaign then released a poll that showed the race tied.
While Moran and Tiahrt have been focused on exploiting the differences in their largely similar voting records, most voters seem to agree that both are conservative they just have to decide whom they like better.
Theyre both great candidates, said Jerry Malone, a Republican running in the 3rd district who is undecided in the Senate race. I wish that Pat Roberts was retiring, and we could send both as our Senators. Theyre both that good.
In a cycle where the spotlight has focused on races defined by anti-Washington sentiment, establishment versus outsider struggles, tea party influence and the battle for the soul of the Republican Party, this race between two long-tenured Congressmen has hardly garnered national attention. But it is has become as nasty and personal as many of the higher-profile contests.
The stakes are high because the winner of the primary is all but certain to be the states junior Senator next year.
Tiahrt is no doubt viewed as the more aggressive candidate, a designation that cuts both ways with voters.
Theres a different mentality. Morans more of a compromiser, and Tiahrts a little more of a fighter, said Dave Bohnemblust, an oil company engineer who skipped work to hear Tiahrt speak in McPherson last week. I think what Republicans need is more of that fighting mentality now.
Herb and Arva Wenger seemed to agree. They had watched the first televised debate between Moran and Tiahrt the night before and turned out for Tiahrts McPherson town hall after hearing Moran speak there earlier.