Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Walk The Line

If Kenny Hulshof is a jaguar -- a nimble, crafty master of the political jungle -- then Sarah Steelman is a bull, who thrives off the thrill of a target when charging towards her prey.

The contest for the Republican nomination for Governor is a contrast in substance, style and even traditional gender roles. Hulshof is more like the mom who pledges to bring us all together at the kitchen table, reassuring us that tomorrow will be bright. Steelman is the dad who delivers the bad news, offers the harsh discipline and even scolds mom when she's wrong.

Hulshof is the likable, get-along-good guy. The farmer next door. The graceful orator who makes you feel warm inside. He's so loyal to his tainted party, he even struggles to say he'd do something differently than Matt Blunt. At the Springfield Chamber of Commerce Monday, he paused and stumbled for seconds (which seemed like minutes) to think . . . before he worded a possible separation with Matt Blunt. "I would've done some things differently . . . but I . . . wasn't in the room," Hulshof finally settled on. He is also proficient at employing a vital political defensive maneuver: Crafting a long-winded response to a question without offering up a direct answer, but still making the recipient walk away feeling satisfied. It's like licking your lips after a salty cob of corn. Tastes great, but there's hardly any nutritional value. Still, in the TV-YouTube-Internet age, his communication skills are to be reckoned with.

Steelman can struggle as an speaker, but that lack of polish at the podium is replaced with a spine of steel. Her fans are fond of saying that she has bigger "cojones" than Hulshof and Jay Nixon put together. Because despite Nixon's party affiliation, his promise to restore the Medicaid cuts and his pledge to boost education funding, the election of Steelman to the Governorship would offer the most jolting and unpredictable change of all three. (Can you imagine winning the Governorship and owing major party figures diddly squat for getting there?)

Steelman's campaign is surprising by the sheer fact that it is still going. Moments after Lieutenant Governor Peter Kinder was nudged out of the race months ago, the conventional wisdom among G.O.P. honchos was that Steelman would exit stage right soon thereafter. If you know anything about the history of the Steelman's, that was an ignorant assumption. The one word that rings most true in Steelman's ad campaign is "Guts." She is nothing if not tough.

Steelman was the underdog then as she remains now. In many aspects her campaign has been tougher, more aggressive and more creative than the Hulshof campaign. But that's because it has to be. From her advertising campaign to her stance on ethics and ethanol, Steelman purposely rattles the boat of the Grand Old Party. At the Press Association debate at Lake Ozark, she surprised many journalists by her aggressiveness and tight message control about spending. Hulshof seemed taken aback by it all, defensive and at times, on the ropes. She may just be at her best when she's directly engaging her opponent. She'll have another chance in two weeks to prove it, when expectations will be higher.

Despite the battering he's taken, Hulshof remains a strong, formidable candidate. The question is whether he's weaker than he was when he began his trek. Hulshof deserves credit for his courage in standing up to Tom Delay, his plan to put fee offices out for competitive bid, his overtures towards bipartisanship. He has streaks of independence and his authentic nature helps magnify that trait to voters.

In addition to battling his attributes, the State Treasurer has hurdles of her own to overcome. Her challenges are above and beyond her swipes towards her party. Compared to Hulshof, she's doesn't come off as well to an audience. While she clasped the podium throughout her Chamber speech, Hulshof roamed freely, engaging the audience members with comfortable gestures and warm eye contact. While she shook some hands afterward, Hulshof made sure to stay long enough to shake almost every one. He won over people who didn't know him, one by one.

To Hulshof supporters, he's smooth. To his detractors, he's slick.

To Steelman boosters, she's courageous. To her opponents, she's clumsy.

The Steelman campaign contends that it won't be meetings of pressed shirt and tie big-wigs that decide the primary winner -- but rather the people with rolled-up sleeves near the waters of Stockton and the fields of Ava.

Call it the P.O. factor. It's the unknown quotient in this primary.

How much of the Republican party is pissed off enough to jump off orthodoxy?

There are rattlings out there. The signals of change are sweeping the country. There are quiet conversations in bars and coffee shops between Republicans about a new direction -- a changing of the guard. But it's impossible to measure the size of the revolt in a hot, compressed summer primary.

Walking the line at this point and time, I put the spread on the race between 4 and 6 points. Ok, that makes 5.

Hulshof up by 5 with less than a month to go.

The jaguar holds the advantage.

But when facing a bull, the jag should be mindful of flaunting a target.

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