Formally debating for the first time, Missouri's three Republican U.S. Senate candidates sought to distinguish themselves by highlighting their differing backgrounds Saturday while joining as a team to criticize President Barack Obama's policies on the economy, health care and national defense.
They remained cordial — almost until the debate was over.
As it wound down, aides for St. Louis businessman John Brunner distributed a press release criticizing former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman's proposals for her first 60-days in office as a "cut, copy and paste platform" from the national Republican playbook that lacked originality. Brunner's release also claimed Steelman's tenure in public office revealed an "anti-conservative record" — about as sharp as an insult as possible at the annual Republican conference where nearly every politician was touting his or her conservative credentials.
But Brunner never verbalized those criticisms during the debate that lasted over an hour.
"That's too bad that he didn't have the guts to bring it up at the forum we were just at," Steelman said when confronted with Brunner's news release. She added: "Maybe he's worried about me."
Brunner, Steelman and U.S. Rep. Todd Akin are competing to challenge Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill in the November elections. None of the Republicans has yet established himself or herself as the clear front-runner for the August primaries.
Although Akin and Steelman have debated twice before, Saturday marked the first time that Brunner joined them. He explained after the debate that he didn't confront Steelman face-to-face in front of the crowd of about 250 Republicans because "this is kind of a friendly atmosphere right here" at the annual Lincoln Days conference.
Missouri's tendency to be a swing state means McCaskill is likely to face a formidable challenge from whoever emerges as the Republican candidate. McCaskill already has been targeted with TV and radio ads — often highlighting her support for Obama — from Republican-aligned conservative groups and from Brunner, who has put $1 million into his campaign. McCaskill recently responded with radio ads highlighting her independence as a senator.
During the debate, Brunner stressed his experience as a businessman while pledging to be a "citizen senator." Akin highlighted his experience as a "tested under fire" conservative in Congress. And Steelman said her career has proven she will "never compromise on freedom."
The candidates mentioned Obama as much, or more often, than McCaskill and frequently agreed while answering questions. All three, for example, denounced intrusive government regulations as hurting businesses and farmers and hindering the economic recovery.
"Stop the regulations, roll back the red tape and let America start working," Brunner said.
Added Akin: "Literally, there is a war on business, and the job loss is a fallout of that war."
Said Steelman: "We need a moratorium on all rules and regulations in this country."
The Republican candidates all supported repealing the health care law signed by Obama, said they disagreed with his defense policies and added that the U.S. should rethink its foreign aid to countries such as Egypt where political uprisings could result in governments run by Islamic extremists.
The candidates disagreed on how best to finance repairs to the nation's crumbling highways and bridges. In Missouri, state officials currently are weighing a proposal to place tolls on Interstate 70 between suburban St. Louis and suburban Kansas City to finance a reconstruction and widening project estimated at between $2 billion and $4 billion.
Asked if they would support an increase in the federal gas tax, none said they would. Akin said he could instead support tolls on I-70 because they are paid only by people who use the road. Steelman said after the debate that she opposes tolls on all highways. Brunner said putting tolls on I-70 was a new idea to him and he did not yet have a position.
During the debate, Brunner said he believes the federal gas tax should be rescinded and states should instead assume full responsibility for administering fuel taxes. Akin said he could support reducing the federal gas tax but noted there still is a role for the federal government in road funding, because interstate highways cross state boundaries.
Perhaps the most confrontational moment of the debate came when candidates were asked to say something nice about each other. Akin thanked Brunner for his past political support, including contributions totaling $10,000 to run for Senate. When it was his turn, Brunner said those donations were intended for Akin to run for Congress, quipping: "You need to listen to your constituents better."
Steelman alluded to Brunner's prior position as chairman of the Vi-Jon Inc., which makes the hand sanitizer Germ-X, among other things.
"I don't know Mr. Brunner well, but I have used his hand sanitizer before," Steelman said.