They are the men behind the curtain.
They determine message, how to spend money and when to spin "momentum."
Jeff Roe and John Hancock. Friends, but rival consultants in the high-stakes Republican primary for Governor.
Roe of Axiom Strategies is the uber-strategist behind Sarah Steelman's campaign. Hancock, a former statewide candidate for Secretary of State, also runs his own consulting shop, and serves as Kenny Hulshof's campaign manager.
They have different approaches, tactics and reputations. But their goal is virtually identical when they get a call from a reporter like me: make the case for why his candidate can win, but in the most convincing yet realistic way possible.
With just 10 days until the voting begins, here's what I learned in interviews with both.
JEFF ROE for Steelman
The much-heralded Jeff Roe covets and protects his data. He is a man of many facts and numbers. But during a stop on Steelman's RV tour in Bolivar this week, he seems eager to make his case. First, he dismisses he's orchestrating a negative campaign. "I've been in negative campaigns, this isn't. It's not personal, it's not vicious," he says.
The Steelman campaign makes the case that they are seeing the undecided voters break for them, and that will in turn, make this race close. The polling shows a backlash against ethanol and support for a repeal of the mandate, which Steelman has been stressing on the stump. "When you say ethanol support, it's medium. When you say mandate, you've just got a lot of Republicans who don't want to do that," Roe explains. "We're on emotion here."
He said this week's debate at KY3 foreshadowed the final stage of the race. "Are they going to go with the nursing home. Do they go hypo-thermo-nuclear negative against her? Because if they do, it could cost them the election," Roe says.
Roe believes the Hulshof camp may try to "muddy the water" on Steelman's earmark attack, but he believes it is too late to change the subject. The campaign has three television advertisements "sitting in the hopper," to pick from -- and only TheRealKenny.com offers some hints as to where they might end up going.
When asked about head-to-head polling, Roe holds his cards close. "It's a dead heat," he says. That's all he'll reveal. No specifics. They pay for those numbers, for God sake's. Why in heavens would they dish them to a reporter?
All Roe will say is that Steelman is not only winning the remaining undecideds, but taking "people from Hulshof." He also predicts that Southwest Missouri will end up breaking hard one way or the other.
The resounding feeling among the Steelman camp is that this will be close. But Roe doesn't like to talk on-the-record about much. The camp is excited but nervous. Then again, they say . . . so are their opponents.
JOHN HANCOCK for Hulshof
John Hancock seems like he's managing the frontrunner. He's eager to point out, "I've never seen them get above 30% in any poll. Period." Then, he goes into a whirlwind of positivity for Kenny. He's gaining momentum by the day. The internals have never looked better. Then, he levels the boom.
"I'm very confident in a victory, a pretty substantial victory."
Boom. Everything I heard from Roe is spinning in my head. Could the uber-strategist be wrong? Could Kenny still be up BIG? Really? This thing ain't close after all?
This is what happens when you talk to strategists. They're job is to be convincing and most do a good job of it. But then you have to step back a little bit . . .
What about all those undecideds?
"The reality is, Kenny Hulshof does even better on the ballot in terms of high intensity voters, the 10 out of 10s," Hancock says. "The ones who are going to show up."
Sure, but what about all that angst among Republicans? The bad brand. The P.O'd G.O.P?
"She's trying to tap into a dissent level that just does not exist in any kind of meaningful fashion. If the dissent existed, their campaign strategy would be brilliant," Hancock says.
But, c'mon. All these e-mails and calls from regular farmers pissed about ethanol. Steelman must have some type of momentum since she launched the bus tour in southwest Missouri? C'mon John, the bus tour was a good idea, right?
"Look, what do they have, a dozen people per stop? It may be 12 people. That's about it. Their maximum crowd has been, what 16,?" he asks.
I say I've heard that had 30 or 40 in Fordland.
"Well, I don't know that Kenny has every spoken to a crowd smaller than 70," Hancock replies. "There is painfully little evidence of a groundswell towards Steelman. They are making 5,000 calls, and 12 people show up."
Ok. Let's do polls. Again, no hard numbers.
One source of mine says he's heard Hulshof is up 5 to 10 points. Quite a range there, but when I ask Hancock about polling, he replies simply, "it's very good." Then, he lobs a shot at what they've been hinting to me. "Their polling data is the same as ours, based on the content of their TV," he says.
My last try is electability. Won't Sarah be stronger in general against Jay? I mean, all the Dems talking to me say they want Hulshof and that Washington record of his.
"Go look at the liberal blogs and see what candidate they are pillaring. They are going after Kenny Hulshof at a rate of 3 to 1. There's a reason for that," Hancock offers.
Then, Hancock offers the Kinder factor up as an argument. "Look, who's political future is most tied to who runs better against Jay Nixon. That was an unprecedented move for Peter to come out for Kenny. If Peter really thought this race was close, he'd stay neutral. Kinder's fate is tied to that ticket. If Jay Nixon wins, it's tough for any statewide Republican to win."
Based on that logic, and perusing the numbers right now, it looks like a bad year for Republicans.
So where's the Hulshof-Steelman race?
10 points. 5 points. 2 points.
Pick your poll, and your consultant.