JEFFERSON CITY — Technically, there is no "challenger" in Missouri's open governor's race. But Republican Rep. Kenny Hulshof has a big challenge in his gubernatorial campaign.
Hulshof starts at a disadvantage to Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon - in money, name recognition and the public's seeming desire for change that could hit Republicans harder because they control both the presidency and Missouri's Capitol.
Hulshof's challenge is enhanced because of how he has positioned himself. He simultaneously embraced the main policy positions of outgoing Republican Gov. Matt Blunt while casting himself as a Jefferson City newcomer capable of making reforms.
In other words, Hulshof is proposing to change the person - and political approach - in the governor's office while continuing its core policies.
"It's very similar to (Republican presidential candidate John) McCain's situation, where he's got to come in as an independent, as a straight-shooter," said political scientist Dave Robertson of the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
"You could apply the same kind of thing to Hulshof," Robertson added. "He has to keep his base behind him, but at the same time reach across to independents - and that's a very tough tightrope to walk."
Hulshof already is attempting that balance as he shifts from Tuesday's close Republican primary victory over Treasurer Sarah Steelman to the November general election campaign against Nixon.
On one hand, Hulshof is running as the successor to Blunt, who chose not to seek a second term.
He praises Blunt's pro-business economic policies, generally defends Blunt's 2005 Medicaid eligibility cuts as a budgetary necessity and embraces Blunt's higher education initiative that finances college buildings with money from Missouri's student loan authority.
On the other hand, Hulshof has suggested that Jefferson City has become consumed with political sniping, which has occurred between Blunt and Nixon, and is in need of an ethics overhaul. Hulshof notes he's never held elected office in Missouri's Capitol.
"It's time to put away the politics of the past in Jefferson City," Hulshof said while speaking Friday at the Missouri Farm Bureau. "The good thing is that I come with a fresh perspective, I don't have axes to grind, I don't have scores to settle, I just want to roll up my sleeves and get to work."
Yet Hulshof is coming from Congress, which has its own reputation for political sniping and - as Steelman hit on during her campaign - for big spending.
Hulshof stood up to the Republican establishment several years ago as part of a House Ethics Committee that admonished House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. And Hulshof defends his fiscal conservative credentials against assertions that he is a Washington big-spender.
But like Steelman, Nixon already is linking the negative Washington image to Hulshof.
Speaking after Hulshof to Farm Bureau members, Nixon repeatedly emphasized the poor work of Washington politicians. First, Nixon attacked a perceived tendency to side with upstream states in Missouri's ongoing battle over use of the Missouri River. Then he chastised Congress' inability to pass immigration legislation. Following that, he denounced inaction on an energy policy despite high gas and utility costs.
In contrast to Hulshof, Nixon proposes a substantial policy change from Blunt's administration. Most significantly, he pledges to try to reverse the 2005 Medicaid cuts and expand government-run health care for children. He also denounces Blunt's college construction plan as a drag on the student loan agency while proposing a new scholarship program that would allow some students to receive free tuition through all four years of college.
But unlike Hulshof, Nixon cannot assert he is a newcomer to Jefferson City. He's been in state office for most of his adult life - spending six years in the Missouri Senate, then the next 16 as Missouri's longest-serving attorney general.
"It will be hard for Nixon to say he hasn't been at the Capitol," Robertson said. "But it will be easy for him to say, 'I've been working in the field off to the side, trying to do things for you like the no-call list (for telemarketers), and I haven't really been involved in the unpopular decisions that the incumbent party has made."
Hulshof's challenge is to channel the public's desire for change away from the policies of Jefferson City toward its personalities.