(Part of UPI's Special Report on Election 2002)
KANSAS CITY, Kan. (UPI) -- The Kansas City, Kan., area long had been considered safe territory for Republicans, but that was before Democrat Dennis Moore captured the 3rd Congressional District seat in 1998.
Now the former prosecutor is pitted against Republican newcomer Adam Taff, 37, a former Navy pilot who says he had a revelation of sorts after Sept. 11 and decided to do something different with his life.
Though Taff patrolled over Iraq, Somalia and Bosnia -- his call sign was "Toto" because of his Kansas roots and his incessant talking about home -- before retiring from the military in 1999 to become a commercial pilot, the issue over which he has hammered Moore has nothing to do with foreign policy.
His issue of choice is Social Security. Unlike President Bush's apparent retreat from plans to allow workers to take some of their Social Security earnings and put them into private accounts, Taff still is hammering the proposal. He says it's the only way to fix a system that will not have enough workers paying into it in 30 years to support all those in their golden years.
Taff needles the 56-year-old Moore on age, saying: "Dennis Moore will get his (Social Security) because he's a little bit older. But I want Dennis to tell us about his plan to ensure that people my age and the younger generation will get benefits."
Moore responds by pointing out that though Social Security funds earn only 1.9 percent, they're doing better than some stock funds, which are down as much as 17 percent in the roller-coaster ride many economist believe still has not bottomed out.
"My feeling is that we, Congress, ought to give incentives to people in this country to save privately in addition to Social Security, not carve funds out of Social Security," Moore said.
National GOP leaders have been pouring money into Taff's campaign, viewing Moore as a usurper in a district that should be theirs.
Moore sees himself more as an independent than a Democrat, siding with the administration on such issues as tax cuts and the "fast track" international trade bill. He voted in favor of the Iraq war resolution. Moore also sees Republican Secretary of State Colin Powell as his personal hero, admiring the former general because he "speaks what's on his mind and he tells the truth."
"I vote what I think is right for this district and this country," he has said.
Burdett Loomis, professor of political science at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, said the fact that it's an off-year election should help Moore since Republicans turn out in greater numbers in presidential years.
Loomis said Moore also is likely to benefit from Republican disenchantment with their gubernatorial candidate, Tim Shallenburger.
"In yard after yard, you see (Kathleen) Sebelius-Moore yard signs," Loomis said. "The Democrats are smelling blood in the water in the gubernatorial race. That will really get Democrats out to vote."
Taff defeated a favored conservative candidate in an extremely contentious primary and Loomis said that has hurt him in the general election race. Additionally, the only anti-abortion candidate in the district is Reform Party nominee Dawn Bly.
"And in this area where conservative Republicans are very strong they vote on this issue," said Loomis. "I wouldn't be surprised to see her take 3, 4, 5 percent of the vote" solely because of that issue, and at a cost to Taff, he said.
Moore's 2000 win over Republican Phil Kline was narrow and current polls show the race with Taff also tight. But Moore has done his best to take care of his mainly suburban district and Loomis said that only can be seen as a plus for an incumbent congressman.
"There is no question that Moore is a modest favorite but this district has a Republican registration advantage of 3-2 or 4-3. So it's always going to be a difficult race for Dennis Moore," Loomis said. "So far, I haven't seen anything that leads me to think Taff is taking full advantage of his moderate Republican credentials."
(Reported by Marcella S. Kreiter, UPI Regional Editor, Chicago)