KANSAS CITY— In their first televised gubernatorial debate, Democrat Claire McCaskill cast Republican Matt Blunt as too inexperienced for the job, while Blunt countered by repeatedly touting his plan to overhaul Missouri’s legal system.
Blunt, the secretary of state, and McCaskill, the state auditor, each were hoping the debate Monday could give them the edge in the Nov. 2 election in a race that public opinion polls show to be virtually even. The second and final televised debate is scheduled for Friday in Springfield, Mo.
McCaskill, 51, defeated Gov. Bob Holden in the Aug. 3 Democratic primary to take over the reins of her party. Blunt, 33, won his party’s backing without any serious opposition.
While saying she was not emphasizing Blunt’s age, McCaskill nonetheless made frequent references to the wealth of personal and professional experiences she’s had since she was Blunt’s age. She cited her passage of legislation, prosecution of criminals, oversight of state audits, management of a law firm, care of her sick father and time spent as a single mom.
“If I look back over the experiences I’ve had over almost the last 20 years, since I was 33, I’ve learned a lot,” McCaskill said.
Blunt defended his own diverse experience — work in the Navy, private sector, the legislature and as secretary of state — while seeking to illustrate his grasp of policy. He offered an overhaul of the state’s legal system — namely limits on personal-injury lawsuits — as a solution for rising health care costs and an impetus for the economy.
“We’ll set public policy that benefits Missourians and not trial attorneys,” Blunt said.
Given the chance to question each other, McCaskill claimed Blunt had failed to improve the state’s election system as secretary of state and criticized him for failing to win legislative passage of an early voting period. Again trying to emphasize her experience, she asked: “Was that job too big or was it too complicated?”
Blunt countered that election operations have improved, and he pointed to the same 2002 legislation cited by McCaskill as successfully implementing anti-fraud voting measures.
In one of his questions, Blunt asked why McCaskill’s husband, businessman Joseph Shepard, had not released his tax returns for public inspection — seeking to make an issue of the source of her $1.6 million personal campaign loan. McCaskill said she and her husband had released lots of financial information.
The two candidates also were questioned about education. Scores of Missouri’s public schools have sued the state, claiming its method of distributing money is inequitable and inadequate.
If elected, Blunt pledged he would begin the process of rewriting the state’s school funding formula even before he would take office in January. McCaskill said her plan includes state financial incentives for school districts that cut administrative costs.
Noting that his wife was pregnant with their first child, Blunt said a four-year public college education could cost his child $160,000 if the trend of rising tuition continues.
“We need to take drastic action,” he said. “Perhaps we do need to allow the legislature to approve tuition increases that exceed the cost of inflation.”
McCaskill said she wanted to double the amount of state financial aid available to college students to a total of $100 million annually. Then she congratulated the Blunts on their pregnancy and used it to again tout her own experience: “I was expecting my first child when I was 33 years old, so that, we have in common,” said McCaskill, who noted at a different point that her oldest son was now 17.
After being quizzed on such things as stem-cell research, the reimportation of Canadian prescription drugs and the economy, the candidates were asked who they turn to for advice. Blunt said his wife, Melanie; his mother, Roseann Blunt; and God. McCaskill said her family; former Gov. Roger Wilson, now the chairman of the Democratic Party; and “normal everyday folks.”
Blunt is the son of Rep. Roy Blunt, the third-ranking House Republican who previously served as Missouri’s secretary of state and who ran unsuccessfully for governor. Matt Blunt served in the Navy before winning election to the Missouri House in 1998. Running for secretary of state two years later, Blunt was the only Republican besides President Bush to win a statewide election.
McCaskill worked as a waitress through college and law school before beginning a career as an assistant Jackson County prosecutor. She won election to the Missouri House in 1982 and served three terms. After working in private legal practice and serving on the Jackson County Legislature, McCaskill won election in 1992 as Jackson County prosecutor. She moved from there to the state auditor’s office in the 1998 election and won re-election in 2002. Her current term as auditor runs through 2006.