BURDETT, Kan. - After a potluck lunch in one of many hamlets dotting the Great Plains, candidate Sally Cauble confronted a key issue in Kansas politics: whether schools should teach students to doubt evolution.
Cauble wants to oust incumbent Connie Morris from the State Board of Education in the Aug. 1 Republican primary. Five races this year could remove half the board's members, undo its conservative majority and doom anti-evolution science standards that brought Kansas international criticism.
Cauble hoped to pick up a few votes in Burdett, a prairie town of 240 people, about 130 miles northwest of Wichita, just off a two-lane state highway, surrounded by fields and best known for being the hometown of the astronomer who discovered the planet Pluto.
When asked by Cleo Gorman, a 68-year-old nurse, about "the science issue," Cauble said she would not have supported the anti-evolution standards.
"To be a scientific theory, it has to be tested. It has to be measured, and then other scientific data is tested against that," Cauble said. "The science of evolution has gone through that, and it has been tested."
But Gorman disagreed and is inclined to vote for Morris, who once wrote in a constituent newsletter that evolution is an "age-old fairy tale."
"Evolution is not proven as much as they thought it was," Gorman told Cauble.
Later, Cauble said she wished evolution weren't an issue. Yet the former teacher and ex-school board member from Liberal contends the conservative-led state board has damaged Kansas' image.
"I believe they've lost their effectiveness because they have lost respect," she said.
Morris, an author and former teacher from St. Francis, sees criticism of the board generated by the media, not most Kansans.
"I may not win the election, but at least I spoke for the people," Morris said recently before preparing a booth at the Ellis County Fair in Hays.
Although most scientists don't question its validity, evolution still generates heated debate political and legal debates across the nation.
A suburban Atlanta school district's put stickers in 35,000 textbooks declaring evolution "a theory, not a fact," leading to a federal lawsuit that's still pending after four years. This year, Ohio rescinded standards hailed by intelligent design advocates.
Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher called intelligent design a "self-evident truth" in a January speech. Last year, in Dover, Pa., voters ousted school board members who had required the biology curriculum to include intelligent design, a policy a federal judge later struck down as a government endorsement of a particular religious view.
Control of the Kansas school board has slipped into, out of and back into conservative Republicans' hands since 1998, resulting in anti-evolution standards for student testing in 1999, evolution-friendly ones in 2001 and anti-evolution ones again last year.
If conservatives retain control this year, it's likely to be read as a victory for intelligent design supporters.
"There are people around the country who would like to see the Kansas standards in their own states, said Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, Calif.
Scott, a critic of the standards, said conservative victories in Kansas would "embolden efforts to clone these standards elsewhere."
Critics believe Kansas' standards promote intelligent design, which says some features of the universe are so well-ordered and complex that they're best explained by an intelligent cause. Proponents contend the standards encourage an open discussion of evolution and its flaws.
"Students need to have an accurate assessment of the state of the facts in regard to Darwin's theory," said John West, a vice president for the Center for Science and Culture at the Seattle-based, anti-evolution Discovery Institute.
The standards contain a disclaimer saying they're not promoting intelligent design, which critics view as repackaged creationism.
But the standards say evolutionary theory that all life had a common origin has been challenged by fossils and molecular biology. And, they say, there's controversy over whether changes over time in one species can lead to a new species. Both statements echo intelligent design arguments, defying mainstream science.
Of course, some Kansans simply don't believe in evolution.
"Personally, I don't think we ought to teach evolution at all," Chuck Warner, a 53-year-old Smith County farmer and cattle buyer, said while watching a horse show at the Smith County Fair. "But if that's the way it has to be, then I think we ought to be able to teach Christianity and the Bible, too."
Ryan Cole, a 26-year-old Smith County farmer and horse trainer, has no problem with teaching intelligent design.
"I feel like if you give two sides of something, most people are intelligent enough to make up their own minds," he said.
Cole believes his thinking is widespread in Morris' sprawling district, which covers all or part of 41 western Kansas counties.
But Richard Barrows, a 58-year-old LaCrosse pharmacist, thinks the conservative majority is out of step, attributing its ascendancy to past voter apathy.
"It's just the perfect example of how, if you ignore elections, a minority can get control," he said.
The Discovery Institute is waging a Web campaign to build support for Kansas' science standards. Other, Kansas-based groups are becoming directly involved in board elections.
The Kansas Republican Assembly, a conservative group, has four political action committees that raised almost $46,000 in 2005, according to campaign finance records.
Three groups opposing conservatives - the Kansas Alliance for Education, MAIN PAC (for mainstream) and the Kansas Traditional Republican Majority - raised about $95,000, including $25,000 from the Kansas-National Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union. It also could contribute directly to candidates.
"Teachers want this board to return to common sense," said Mark Desetti, a KNEA lobbyist.
Still, state board races have remained heavy on speeches to small groups, booths at county fairs and appearances in local parades. Morris keeps a laundry basket in her car, full of trinkets to throw to children watching parades, and in 2002, she spent only about $16,000 on her campaign, despite the size of her 5th District.
"I think that people just agree that the theory of evolution needs to be challenged," she said. "It makes sense. It's good science."
When Cauble visited Burdett, she brought a copy of a Time magazine story headlined, "Reconciling God and Science." She told one audience member she's a committed Methodist.
"There are many of us who believe that God created the heavens and the earth - and I believe that very strongly," she said. "But I believe that you can believe that, and you can still believe in evolution."