Wichita U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, facing his own re-election battle, distanced himself Friday from presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain on the awarding of a tanker contract that cost Kansas some 2,000 aircraft jobs.
"I am not in agreement with the nominee on this issue," Roberts told The Associated Press shortly after a meeting with Republican supporters.
McCain has been criticized by aerospace workers for the Air Force's decision earlier this year to award a contract for new refueling tankers to European Aeronautic Defense & Space Co., the European parent company of Airbus, Boeing's chief rival.
Roberts, a longtime supporter of Boeing, said he did not expect the tanker issue to hurt his own re-election.
"I don't know if people will make a decision on that issue alone," Roberts said Friday.
He also said he did not know whether the controversy would hurt McCain's chances in this Republican state, which is heavily dependent on aircraft manufacturing. Some of the work on the proposed tankers would have been done at the Boeing Co.'s Wichita facility.
McCain worked earlier this decade to kill a separate deal to lease Boeing refueling jets to the Air Force. Some of McCain's advisers have lobbied for EADS, but the Arizona senator and former Navy pilot has denied interceding on their behalf during the new refueling tanker deal.
Roberts' comments came after a luncheon meeting with former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole at the Wichita Pachyderm Club. The state's top Republican leaders at the event included U.S. Sen. Brownback and U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt.
"This is going to be a tough year," Dole told the group.
Dole said everything Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have said is "philosophically not in tune" with anybody in the room.
Roberts echoed the oft-repeated sentiment that it was going to be a tough election for Republicans, telling them that for some reason Republicans are "walking around with a cloud over their heads."
They are facing in Obama a Democratic presidential candidate with a lot of charisma, he said. And this year Democrats are awash in campaign money.
Brownback also told audience members they had to push hard this fall.
"President Bush is not popular - am I leaking that? - I don't know. If it's a leak, I didn't mean to say it," Brownback said wryly as his fellow Republicans roared in laughter.
He said the Republicans are in a "tough cycle" now because of the tough economy and rising gas prices.