COLUMBIA, Mo. — The first of three waitressing events this week for Sen. Claire McCaskill took place Tuesday morning at Flat Branch Pub & Brewing, and when she walked out of the kitchen, wearing a black apron around her waist, she was met with a room of empty tables.
The restaurant had just opened for business, and the lunch crowd hadn't quite arrived.
McCaskill has been on the campaign trail but keeping a low profile, sitting on her lead in public polls since her rival, Todd Akin, imploded over a comment about "legitimate rape," and — according to aides — focusing on preparation for the Senate debate Thursday. Meanwhile, Akin has kept up a furious pace, crisscrossing the state with surrogates including Janet Huckabee and reality show star Michelle Duggar.
But McCaskill told reporters she was "very comfortable" with the state of the the race.
Akin has begun to recover a trace of momentum in a state Republican Mitt Romney is expected to carry handily, receiving support from some outside groups, including Sen. Rand Paul's PAC, which spent six figures to air an anti-McCaskill commercial beginning tomorrow.
But McCaskill's comfort and confidence have been on display in her campaign, and in her risk-free visit to Flat Branch.
Surveying the room of still-empty tables, the Democratic senator, who is running for reelection against Rep. Todd Akin, walked over to an aide, who explained that they'd be seating people shortly.
"I'm ready to work!" McCaskill said, perky, as she headed back to the kitchen.
Fifteen minutes later, diners had been seated at the senator's four tables, and she reappeared.
"I'm Claire," she said as she walked over to where two college students sat. A cameraman working for the campaign followed.
"Do you want to know the specials?" McCaskill asked, as a boom operator conspicuously lowered a microphone over the table.
Mitchell Perne and Brady Finn, who were taking a break from classes at the University of Missouri, looked unenthused. "Sure," they said obligingly.
McCaskill, who worked as a waitress during college, flitted in and out of the kitchen, balancing plates and trays. She told reporters that the event "shows I can relate" to voters on issues including student loans and the economy.
"These are bread-and-butter issues," McCaskill said, "so we thought we'd serve a little bread and butter today."
When McCaskill brought the bill to Andrew Kapp, 32, and Mike Campbell, 31, two Columbia-based attorneys, she pointed out the server name printed on it: "Senator Claire."
"You got to keep that one," Kapp said excitedly across the table once McCaskill had walked away. "That's nifty."
But the novelty was lost on Campbell as he puzzled over his receipt.
"What do you tip a senator?"
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that the waitressing event was McCaskill's only event this week.