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Austin Petersen and Tony Monetti

Austin Petersen (left) and Tony Monetti, Republican candidates seeking to challenge U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., for her Senate seat.

FENTON • Two Republican candidates for Missouri’s U.S. Senate seat tried again Friday evening to strike an unusual agreement for one of them to drop out of the race based on polling, in an effort to take on GOP front-runner Josh Hawley.

But talks fell apart when one of the candidates insisted that the poll inform respondents that his opponent is religiously agnostic before asking which candidate they support.

The meeting between candidates Austin Petersen and Tony Monetti took place shortly before a candidate forum both men were attending in Fenton.

The two men and their staffs came to a tentative agreement on three poll questions that simply measured support and name-recognition for each candidate. But then Monetti backed out, because Petersen wouldn’t allow him to have the poll topped with a question asking respondents if they would vote for Petersen if they knew additional things about him, including that he “does not believe in God.”

The question constitutes the classic definition of “push-polling,” in which polls are structured with certain questions that are designed to nudge respondents toward a specific poll result.

After the ill-fated meeting, Petersen and Monetti joined three other GOP primary candidates in the forum — which Hawley didn’t attend — to debate immigration, health care, foreign policy and other issues on which they generally agreed with standard GOP positions.

They’re vying for the Republican nomination to challenge U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who is considered one of the most vulnerable incumbent Senate Democrats in the country. Hawley is the presumed leader in the race for the GOP nomination in terms of money and party support.

As the Post-Dispatch recently reported, Petersen and Monetti had struck their unusual written agreement that one of them would drop out of the race, based on a joint poll that would show which of them had the better chance to defeat Hawley in the GOP primary. That agreement collapsed earlier, and Friday’s meeting was an attempt to resuscitate it.

The two men and a few staffers from both sides met on Petersen’s campaign bus in the parking lot of the forum venue. Both campaigns allowed a Post-Dispatch reporter to observe as they discussed poll questions and appeared to come to a tentative agreement to have a professional pollster ask three questions, each measuring support for the two candidates in various matchups against each other and others.

Monetti said he wanted to add an additional question, which he read to Petersen from a handwritten notebook page: “Would you vote for Petersen if you knew he is for open borders . . . and does not believe in God?”

Petersen has said he isn’t for “open borders” but opposes President Donald Trump’s plans for a wall along the Mexican border based on cost. He has described his religious beliefs as “agnostic.”

Nonetheless, Petersen and his staff agreed to let Monetti add the poll question, provided it be asked last, after the questions about general support, and that it not be used to determine the poll winner for purposes of deciding who would drop out of the race.

The candidates shook on it and Monetti left the campaign bus. Moments later, he and his staff returned, asking whether poll respondents would be allowed to change their answers to the first questions — about general support of the candidates — after hearing the question about Petersen’s religious stance. When Petersen’s staff said no, Monetti and his staff insisted that the religious question be listed first on the poll.

Petersen refused. “I can’t agree to an unscientific poll,” he told Monetti.

Monetti responded: “I’m not going forward with this deal.” Later, he suggested the two meet over the weekend to talk further.

The debate, at Rockwood Summit High School in Fenton, was conducted under the auspices of the conservative groups “Show-Me Trump” and “America First Mo.”

In addition to Petersen and Monetti, GOP hopefuls on stage included Kristi Nichols, Peter Pfeifer and Courtland Sykes.

Sykes is the somewhat mysterious candidate who has gotten some national press for inflammatory remarks he has made online calling feminists “career-obsessed banshees” with “snake-filled heads.”

The debate was co-moderated by former Post-Dispatch columnist Stacy Washington and Ed Martin, the polarizing Republican activist and some-time candidate.

One question from Martin to candidates was, “How great is Donald Trump’s Twitter feed?” It led to a conversation about social media in which Petersen drew a huge applause by declaring: “I’ve been banned from Facebook twice!”

In response to another question from Martin about who their favorite judges were, both Sykes and Nichols responded that it is former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, who recently lost a U.S. Senate election after being accused by numerous women of sexually harassing or assaulting them while they were minors.

Missouri’s Republican primary is Aug. 7. The general election is Nov. 6.

Kevin McDermott is a member of the Post-Dispatch Editorial Board.