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Gubernatorial races also barnburners

Some of the 11 contests have been contentious and heavily financed.

October 10, 2008|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

OSAGE BEACH, MO. — The patriotic bunting was waiting and the floors were scattered with star-shaped glitter when hundreds of Republicans filed into Elks Lodge No. 2517 here in the northern Ozarks.

They came this month to give a boost to U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof, who is locked in a tight race to succeed Missouri's outgoing Republican governor, Matt Blunt. The stakes were big -- and about to get bigger.

More than 500 miles away in Michigan, Republican presidential nominee John McCain's campaign was closing up its operations, in effect ceding the key state to Democratic rival Barack Obama.

The decision suggested that McCain was going to make his push in some of the country's other battleground states -- including Missouri, which President Bush won in 2004 and is renowned for reflecting the outcome of national contests.

While the presidential election has overshadowed most state races, some of this year's 11 gubernatorial contests have been fierce and heavily financed. Officials from the national Republican and Democratic governors associations say they broke fundraising records in the first three quarters of this year.

Missouri has picked the winner in all but one presidential election since 1904. In 1956, voters in the Show Me State backed Democrat Adlai E. Stevenson instead of the Republican incumbent, President Eisenhower.

Recent polls show McCain and Obama running neck and neck in the state. So when the GOP faithful gathered at the Elks Lodge -- even if the event was billed as a celebration of local Republican candidates -- few were surprised that the talk was all about the White House.

One of McCain's fellow prisoners of war extolled his friend's sense of duty and honor. A Sarah Palin impersonator cracked jokes about Obama's promises to revive the economy. A bluegrass band sang praises of McCain's faith. Even Hulshof, the rally's headliner, spent his energy pumping up McCain.

"He's the only reason we got to go back to the table on this bailout," Hulshof said of the role the Arizona senator played in congressional passage of the $700-billion Wall Street rescue. "He's the reason we were able to say no to Wall Street and not give them a blank check."

Lingering economic woes are a key issue in the governor's race, politicians and political analysts say, citing Missouri's troubled manufacturing and auto industries.

"What you see nationally are the issues that state candidates here are wrestling with," University of Missouri political scientist David Robertson said. "The economy, education, healthcare -- it's what's important in Missouri."

So the candidates need to woo voters like Steve Norris. The 63-year-old Osage Beach resident, who came to the Elks rally, said he remembered the boom times in this cozy town of 4,600. But as the economy spiraled downward and unemployment grew, he said, the tourist dollars that once flooded this boaters' mecca slowed.

He closed his barbecue restaurant two years ago. Since then, he said, five of his friends have lost their businesses because of slumping sales.

"I have heart problems, so I can't really work. My wife is a schoolteacher," Norris said. "If she gets fired or laid off, we'll lose everything and be living in someone's backyard. I need a governor and a president who are going to turn the economy around now."

Missouri's gubernatorial race has been contentious for months. GOP officials scrambled to find a replacement when Blunt unexpectedly announced in January that he would not seek a second term. That allowed Jay Nixon, the state's four-term Democratic attorney general, to hold a strong position in the polls for much of the year as Republican candidates battled it out in a bitter primary.

The winner was Hulshof, 50, a six-term congressman whose conservative stance on taxes and social issues has helped him shrink a double-digit gap in the polls. It was down to a 7-point split last month, according to a recent poll conducted for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and KMOV-TV.

Nixon has hammered the GOP over many of the steps taken during Blunt's administration, including raising revenue by selling off the assets of the state's Higher Education Loan Authority, which offers college loans to Missourians, and making deep cuts to the Medicaid program that left many low-income residents and children without coverage.

"We have lost more jobs in this state in the last year than all eight states that touch us combined," said Nixon, 52. "It's clear we need a change."

A similar debate over the privatizing of state assets and agencies is playing out in Indiana. Recent polls put Republican incumbent Gov. Mitch Daniels 1 percentage point ahead of his challenger, former Democratic Rep. Jill Long Thompson.

In the close North Carolina race, Democratic Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue and her Republican rival, Charlotte Mayor Patrick McCrory, have pushed for get-tough platforms on illegal immigration -- and grown increasingly strident over the issue of stem cell research.

And in Washington state, a rematch of the close 2004 gubernatorial race has seen GOP challenger Dino Rossi and Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire once again neck and neck. Although Obama is doing well in polls there, Republicans say that Rossi -- who is campaigning as a candidate of change -- may be able to pull in some Democratic presidential supporters.

"At the end of the day, we're talking about small percentages of who wins or who loses," said Nick Ayers, executive director of the Republican Governors Assn. "When you're talking about races this close, a victory can make all the difference up and down the ticket."


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