Friday, February 29, 2008

The Renee Factor

"I'm matching him Lincoln Day for Lincoln Day . . ."
Renee Hulshof has an insider's advantage in the unofficial media primary. It's because she's got experience behind the microphone, during her college years at KOMU as a television reporter.
She's been through the dreadful live shot, the bad hair day, the grind of the daily deadline. Her experience as the interviewer gives her an undeniable advantage as the ultimate political surrogate.
"He's an incredible speaker, and I'm not slightly biased on that front," Renee said, with a half-wink. "The downside of that is people have to have the chance to hear him in more than 30-second bytes," she added.
But Kenny Hulshof's wife understands soundbites, and she knows how to win over people. Her warm smile, Midwest good looks, engaging presence and keen ability to articulate her husband's attributes makes her a formidable political force -- especially at a time when even many Republicans don't know who Kenny Hulshof is.
"I am matching him Lincoln Day dinner for Lincoln Day dinner," Renee said Friday afternoon during a stop at the Ozarks Food Harvest. She speaks in Bolivar Friday night, and in Dexter Saturday while her husband hits other small towns outside his Congressional district.
The goal is clear. Time is short, and Hulshof needs to introduce himself quickly. "We need to learn about the area beyond we've known for the last 12 years," Renee said candidly. "I can be eyes and ears for him as well. In the end, he's the man on the ballot, but I want to do everything I can as his surrogate to help out."
On Friday, that meant meeting with small groups -- of mainly women -- in Springfield, including leaders at the Ozarks Food Harvest. After touring the facility and hearing about their strapped resources, she said the poverty rates in Greene County surprised her.
"It's my understanding their service area has one of the highest per capita poverty rates in the state. We're talking working class people, we're talking about working poor, not just people hanging out, doing nothing," she said.
She said one of her top priorities as First Lady would be to "feed more people" through private-public partnerships. "How do we encourage people to continue to give to feed their neighbor? How does the government aid and assist in those partnerships to help feed those in need," she said.
"In rural areas, as I learned here as well, just as in the Northeast, that's where it's harder to get the resources and get the food to those people," she added.
Maybe its her background as a journalist. But when you ask Mrs. Hulshof a question, you can actually see her trying to answer it. Which is odd for many politicians, and even their spouses. This was no-hard-hitting interview, but when asked what's different about her husband, she said joyfully, "He's a drummer!"
She soon steers back to the political and is quick to tout his bipartisan credentials and likability.
"Sort of the joke up in our next of the woods has been the exasperation on the other side of the political aisle that he's so hard to run against because he's just Kenny. People like him," Renee said.
She then gets detailed to and notes his "personality" helped build coalitions to find solutions with Democrats. "Reaching across the aisle to conservative Democrats for help on ethanol-biodiesel. Reaching across the aisle to work on disability initiatives so that the disabled, when they head back into the workforce, don't fall off the income cliff and lose all their benefits," she said. "Those aren't traditional Republican issues."
So what will be the big issue in this year's Governor's race? The economy, Renee said flatly. "People are going to want to know they've got a job, that the economy's not going to tank and they're not going to be employed," she said. "If the national economy continues a downward trend, I think its going to become more prominent an issue."
But before her husband gets a shot at working with Democrats or on the economy, he has to defeat a fellow Republican, who has her own charm and personality.
Part of her goal, she said, in Springfield Friday was to neutralize Sarah Steelman's possible inherent edge among women. She is beginning organizing a Women for Hulshof effort, but also hinted her husband wouldn't take Steelman lightly.
"I think you just have to fight the issues head on regardless of the gender of the person on the other side. Because patronizing, is the worst thing you can be. And he's not," she said.
But she acknowledged that Steelman's statewide name identification puts Hulshof at a bit of a disadvantage from the start. "While our time is much more short, then our Democratic opponent has had. I think we still have a lot of time," she said.
That means a lot more hands to shake, and a lot more mediatypes to win over.
But if Hulshof ends up winning the primary or even becoming Governor, it will be in part due to the ardent, articulate help from "his better half," who might just be his secret weapon.

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