ANALYSIS: Missouri gubernatorial race a contrast in campaign strategies

Sunday, October 12, 2008 | 5:42 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — Republican Kenny Hulshof promotes a new policy idea every week. Democrat Jay Nixon has spoken about the same basic proposals for months.

The contrasting campaign strategies in Missouri's gubernatorial race help reveal who's ahead in the public opinion polls as the Nov. 4 election approaches.

"When you're a frontrunner, the incentive is generally to play it safer and not offer lots of new specific policy ideas that could be shot down and critiqued by your opponents," says David Kimball, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Nixon fits that mold.

"One thing the challenger needs to do, or someone who is behind, is find some way of throwing the candidate leading the race off message — get control of the daily media cycle," adds political scientist Marvin Overby of MU. "You don't get that with an old message. You might get that with a new message."

Hulshof fits that mold.

A congressman from Missouri's 9th Congressional District, Hulshof turned back state Treasurer Sarah Steelman in a close and contentious Republican gubernatorial primary. Two weeks after that, Hulshof began rolling out his weekly policy proclamations.

First, Hulshof focused on energy — drilling for oil and attracting a refinery to Missouri, among other things.

Then Hulshof announced his long-awaited health care proposal, which would set up a new statewide insurance pool with government subsidies for low-income Missourians to get private insurance.

In week three, Hulshof rolled out his education and work force proposals — bonuses to new math and science teachers and specialized college training programs for the employees of new businesses in Missouri.

Week four focused on higher education — a proposed funding formula for colleges and universities and state-matching grants to beef up college instructional programs in certain math and science fields.

Hulshof's barrage of proposals took a week off in mid-September. Then he fired up the idea machine again for several consecutive weeks.

He proposed changes to Missouri's court system, tax credits (denounced by Democrats as vouchers) for students in urban school districts to attend private schools and a governmental accountability plan that would create a state inspector general while restricting the attorney general's ability to contract with private lawyers.

Hulshof spokesman Scott Baker hints that there may be more to come in the weeks ahead.

"Every candidate is talking about change, but only one candidate in this race is providing a detailed map to change," says Baker, referring to Hulshof. "It was important to put many ideas and many solutions out there."

By contrast, Nixon has not rolled out any major new policy proposals since before the primary election, in which he faced no significant opposition.

It was April when Nixon outlined his higher education plan — a tuition-free path to a four-year college degree for students who start at a community college, do community service and keep up good grades.

In June, Nixon outlined his plan to create a performance review commission for state government programs.

In July, Nixon toured the state announcing his health care plan — a reversal of the 2005 Medicaid cuts enacted by Republicans and an expansion of the state children's health insurance program to middle-class families.

As the economy worsened, Nixon repositioned his health care and higher education proposals under the broad banner of his economic plan, though he never held a specific event announcing an economic platform. Either way, Nixon's message has remained focused on three basic issues: the economy, health care and higher education.

"It's a matter of priorities and a matter of focus," Nixon spokesman Oren Shur says. "Jay Nixon recognizes that the No. 1 challenge Missouri families face is this economic crisis and how their families are going to make ends meet."

Nixon is a known commodity to most Missourians after serving a record 16 years as attorney general. Hulshof, by contrast, had to raise his profile for his first statewide election — something frequent policy proposals may help accomplish, Kimball says.

It's unclear, however, whether the public is paying much attention to Hulshof's various ideas, particularly with the ever-twisting presidential race commanding so much attention.

"Most people in the public have only a vague grasp of a particular policy. They operate much more on a broad sense of comfort with the candidate," Overby says. "A candidate with a simpler message to digest — like ‘Change is good' or ‘It's the economy, stupid' — they're going to have an advantage because that's the type of message that is going to sink in."

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