Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill and GOP Rep. Todd Akin used the final Missouri Senate debate to talk about issues close to home, but the exchange of the night came on foreign policy.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) became a focus of the discussion, with McCaskill and Akin disagreeing on his proposal to restrict foreign aid to a variety of countries — even if neither candidate could quite remember which ones the Kentucky Republican meant to reference.
"I am, in fact, the one that's supporting the fact that we should not be giving foreign money to a number of places, and that includes of course Libya and Pakistan and — let's see, one other country as well ..." Akin said.
McCaskill offered up “Syria,” in a moment reminiscent of when Mitt Romney pitched in to try to help Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) remember which Cabinet departments he planned to eliminate during a presidential primary debate earlier this year.
The third country on Paul's list is Egypt.
"You know, when somebody burns our flags, when they torture the people that gave us the information to get Osama bin Laden, those people are not our friends, and I don't support giving them foreign aid," Akin said.
McCaskill called that position "extreme," citing the uniform opposition of the Senate Armed Services Committee to the proposal offered by Paul to halt aid to the three countries until they meet certain conditions.
"There were only 10 Senators that voted for this amendment. This is the position that he wants to take to the United States Senate," McCaskill said. "Once again being on the extreme edge, not being thoughtful, not being reasonable."
On domestic policy, this Missouri Senate debate seemed like a flashback to 2006.
McCaskill again found herself engaged with a Republican opponent on the question of support for stem cell research. In response to an audience question, McCaskill expressed support for all forms of stem-cell research.
"The lord gave us intelligence to discover scientific advancements, and I particularly support all of the research that is done that has made us the envy of the world in terms of our ability to find cures," McCaskill said.
Akin expressed support for most stem cell research but not the kind involving embryos.
“I think stem cell research is just phenomenal in the kinds of things that are being done. In fact, you almost think some of them are miraculous," Akin said.
"I believe life begins at conception," Akin said, adding that recent scientific discoveries could negate the need for the kind of research he opposes. In 2006, then-Sen. Jim Talent (R) opposed a ballot initiative to allow embryonic stem cell research within the state. The initiative was narrowly approved.
The stem cell discussion was as close as the debate got to the social issues that focused national attention on the race — Akin's views on "legitimate rape" and emergency contraception.
The debate moved quickly from topic to topic, but an exchange over federal funding for education served to highlight the fundamental differences between the two candidates.
Akin was clear in expressing the need to reduce the federal government's role in education, saying parents should have more choice with fewer mandates. He said he was the only Member of the Missouri delegation to vote against the George W. Bush-era education law known as No Child Left Behind, even with a Republican in the White House.
"It's not that I want to leave children behind. It's that I don't have abiding faith in big government to fix problems in education," Akin said. "I've even encouraged that we could save a lot of money and get rid of a lot of that educational bureaucracy because it doesn't really contribute to our education."
McCaskill responded with an emphasis on federally backed student loans and Pell grants, while criticizing Akin's position opposing federal school lunches.
"The federal government's involvement in public education is important for our country," she said. "This is not about bureaucracy; it's about whether or not the middle class survives."
Akin cited the lunch program as an area where he favored local control.
“I suggested maybe the school lunch program could be shifted to the state. Now, I don't know whether the lunches taste as good if the state does it as whether the federal government does it, but Claire McCaskill seems to think this is a crisis if you don't have everything done by the federal government," he said.
Akin also decried the federal government's 2010 takeover of the student loan program. McCaskill noted those loans had already been federally backed when offered by private banks.
McCaskill and Akin discussed a panoply of other domestic issues. Akin repeatedly sought to tie McCaskill to President Barack Obama, most notably when he criticized the incumbent for budget deficits and voting to support the 2010 health care law, which has been unpopular in Missouri.
Obama is not seriously competing in the Show-Me State during this election cycle, but Roll Call rates the Senate race as Leans Democratic. The latest polling data from Democrats has shown McCaskill with a healthy lead.