BATES CITY, Mo. — Ask Republican Bill Stouffer to name his opponent as he battles for the right to represent the big 4th District in Congress, and he whips out his answer: "Ike Skelton."
Ask rival Republican Vicky Hartzler the same question, and she shoots back: "Skelton."
Never mind that 17-term incumbent Ike Skelton is a Democrat and that Stouffer and Hartzler must first survive a 10-candidate GOP primary field for the right to take him on.
The seat remains pivotal for Republicans who must win seats like Missouri's 4th to regain a House majority.
But with only eight weeks to go before the Aug. 3 primary, target No. 1 for Republicans remains Skelton. The GOP's singular focus has led to an unusually civil primary season — at least so far.
"I'm really surprised we haven't seen a little more attempt to contrast themselves from one another," said University of Central Missouri political scientist Shari Garber Bax.
The district stretches roughly from Blue Springs to the Ozarks in west-central Missouri.
Stouffer and Hartzler, who have emerged from the pack as a result of campaign money and name recognition, described Skelton in similar ways. They said he is a politician who was in synch with his district during the early years of his congressional career.
But that's changed with Democrats in control in Washington, where Skelton serves as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
"With him being chairman, that's become more important than representing the 4th Congressional District," said Stouffer, a former school board president, farmer and two-term senator from Napton.
Hartzler, a former teacher and three-term state lawmaker from Harrisonville, pointed to Skelton's voting record, which she said closely matches that of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
"He voted for every government bailout, for every runaway spending bill," she said, including cap-and-trade.
Skelton has said he regularly travels the district to remain in touch with constituents. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report said he remains the favorite in November, though in 2008, Republican John McCain beat Barack Obama here by a whopping 60-38 percent.
"Nobody fights harder or is more effective for military families than Ike Skelton," said campaign spokesman Jack Cardetti. He said Skelton votes with the majority at times, such as backing the war in Afghanistan, and opposes the majority at other times, such as on national health care reform.
"He's an independent voice for the people of his district, and that's why they're on a first-name basis," Cardetti said.
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