JEFFERSON CITY — Preparing for a potential bid to become chief executive of Missouri, Republican Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder first is repositioning himself as chief challenger to the current administration.
Since Democrat Jay Nixon became governor in January, Kinder's official responsibilities have declined — some by choice, others at Nixon's insistence — while Kinder's political duties have increased.
Gone is the cooperation that existed between Missouri's top two executives when Kinder served under fellow Republican Gov. Matt Blunt for four years. In its place is a new tension as Kinder prepares for a likely challenge to Nixon in the 2012 elections.
Unlike the president and vice president, Missouri's top executives do not run together as a political duo. Missouri is one of 18 states that hold separate elections for governor and lieutenant governor.
As a result, Missouri's No. 1 and No. 2 executives "really are a team of rivals, particularly when you've got a partisan difference," said Marvin Overby, a political science professor at the University of Missouri.
"I think Peter Kinder certainly sees himself as gubernatorial material and is looking at national tides," said Overby, later adding: "He doesn't want to be associated too much with the state of the state if he is going to be running as the alternative."
The separation between Missouri's governor and lieutenant governor began shortly after Nixon took office Jan. 12. Two weeks later, Nixon rescinded Blunt's appointment of Kinder as chairman of a committee preparing for the 2010 census, placing the panel under the leadership of Nixon's new administration commissioner.
Nixon spokesman Jack Cardetti said Friday that the decision was a financial one. The lieutenant governor had sought to hire three employees and lease an office for the committee, which would have cost about $175,000 more than by using the Office of Administration's staff and facilities, Cardetti said.
Soon after making such changes to the census committee, Nixon took away Kinder's role as chairman of the Missouri Development Finance Board, appointing his own economic development director to the post instead. Cardetti said the governor "wanted to go in a different direction" and "put his footprint on the organization."
Earlier this month, Kinder voluntarily stepped down as chairman of the Missouri Tourism Commission. That move came after deep tourism budget cuts by Nixon and several months after Kinder clashed with Nixon's administration over a proposed cut that could have canceled the 2009 Tour of Missouri bicycle race.
No longer in those official leadership roles, Kinder may feel greater freedom to criticize Nixon's decisions. Kinder spokesman Gary McElyea used a more diplomatic phrase. The resignation as tourism chairman should enable Kinder to be "a more staunch advocate for the tourism industry," he said.
"He's made a calculated decision as to how he can be more effective in the political climate in Jefferson City," McElyea added.
The division between Missouri's governor and lieutenant governor extends beyond official boards and commissions. The two seldom talk in a substantive way. And they sometimes work against each other in the halls of the Capitol.
As the only Republican in a statewide executive office, Kinder assumed control of the Missouri Republican Party after the 2008 elections and has increased his involvement with Republican legislative leaders. As governor, Nixon exercises control over the Missouri Democratic Party.
McElyea says Kinder "was very instrumental with behind the scenes maneuvering on the budget" this year. As Nixon sought to expand government health care for low-income adults, Republican legislative leaders and budget negotiators met privately with Kinder in the waning hours before a budget deadline. Republican House members ultimately refused to pass Nixon's health care plan.
During the past four years, Blunt provided Kinder numerous opportunities to enhance his profile. Blunt transferred gubernatorial powers to Kinder for a total of about 100 days when Blunt traveled out of state. A little fewer than half of those came after Blunt announced he would not seek re-election and Kinder agreed — for the sake of party unity — to seek a second term as lieutenant governor instead of creating a three-way primary for Blunt's office.
Nixon hasn't transferred his gubernatorial powers for a minute to Kinder, not even when he flew to Iraq and Afghanistan this summer. In fact, Nixon's office doesn't typically inform Kinder's office when the governor travels out of state.
The gap between Nixon and Kinder was apparent earlier this month when police swarmed a Jefferson City office building near the Governor's Mansion believing there was a potential hostage situation.
Kinder didn't know Nixon was at a business meeting in Dallas. Nor was Kinder privy to official updates from law enforcement as the event unfolded. Instead, the lieutenant governor watched the scene from his Capitol window, posting online messages on Twitter about sharpshooters, a hovering helicopter and hostage negotiators and doing a TV interview by telephone in which he urged people to "pray for the hostage."
McElyea said Kinder got some of his information from "sources" in law enforcement and from people inside the building. As it turned out, there was no hostage.