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McCaskill, Blunt take off the gloves in debate

by Bill O'Malley
Contributing writer

The Missouri Governor’s race took center stage at the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City on Monday night as Republican Matt Blunt and Democrat Claire McCaskill took off the gloves in the third of four gubernatorial debates.

If cordiality was the prescription coming into the debate that covered a host of issues—including litigation reform, health care, education, highway funding, abortion, gay marriage, and jobs—those sentiments quickly vanquished in the ensuing exchanges. The two candidates for governor traded shots on each other’s stances, values, and experience.

During the debate, both candidates accused the other of making baseless accusations and contorting the truth about each other's true records.

McCaskill, age 51, wove a consistent theme throughout the hour long debate, declaring that she was better equipped to lead the state than her younger rival because of her age and experience. McCaskill, who currently serves as state auditor, pointed to her 20 year record as a public servant compared to Blunt’s six year record as a state representative and Missouri’s current secretary of state.

Blunt, age 33, ceded her assertion that experience is a pivotal issue. But he cast aside her assumption that the number of one’s years in public office is a true measure of the type of experience that matters most.

Blunt said: “I will be the more effective governor … because of the depth and diversity of my experience.”

He scoffed that McCaskill was selectively dismissive of his experience as a naval officer and small business owner, from which he claims to have acquired broad-ranging leadership abilities and a multi-dimensional perspective on the issues that Missourians will confront in the next four years.

McCaskill continuously chided Blunt on his age throughout the debate. At one point, she took an opening to congratulate Blunt and his wife on expecting their first child.

“It’s something we have in common,” McCaskill added, “I was expecting my first child when I was 33 years old.”

When given the opportunity to ask a direct question of her Republican opponent, she criticized his performance as the state's chief election official and closed her questioning by asking: “Was the job too big or too complicated?”

Blunt dismissed McCaskill's charges and said that the problems were the result of mistakes made at local election authorities but that his office was working closely with the authorities to minimize mistakes.

McCaskill's premise was echoed by her supporters and staff. Information distributed to the media during the debate was subtitled “Matt Blunt: Just…Not…Ready”.

If elected, Blunt would be the second youngest governor in the history of the state. United States Senator Christopher S. “Kit” Bond was younger than Blunt when he was first elected to the governor’s mansion in 1972. Bond served two terms as governor and is now vying for a fourth term in the senate.

Blunt challenged McCaskill and her husband, Joe Shepard, for refusing to release their tax records as Blunt and his wife had done. McCaskill and her husband, who is a St. Louis developer, have contributed more than $1.6 million to her campaign. It has been reported that Shepard has considerable financial dealings with the state. Blunt said that the couple's failure to make anything less than a full disclosure creates a potential conflict of interest and at least leaves the appearance of impropriety.

McCaskill fired back that she filed a lengthy disclosure of her husband's business dealings and accused Blunt of unfairly attacking her family.

Responding to a question on what role faith would play in her administration; McCaskill said “It’s not something I wear on my sleeve. It’s not something we talk about.”

“She doesn’t want to talk about values,” Blunt retorted “If I had hers, I wouldn’t either.”

Blunt questioned McCaskill’s moral clarity on value-oriented public policy like same-sex marriage, taxpayer financing of abortions, and partial-birth abortion, insisting that her views were not consistent with mainstream Missouri.

McCaskill pointed to her traditional family as evidence that she believes marriage is between a man and a woman. But she explained that it is important to not be judgmental on the issue of gay marriage. She also said that she supports banning partial-birth abortion with a health exception for the mother. Such an exception would include a mental health provision.

“These are matters of conscience,” Blunt responded “It is very disingenuous to say that she opposes gay marriage but also opposes the amendment.”

Medical malpractice reform is a centerpiece of Blunt’s campaign. Missouri doctors have witnessed medical liability premiums skyrocket in recent years, prompting many to move their practices to the refuge of other states with laws that are more amenable to their practices.

Missouri lawmakers twice passed litigation reform, but the bills were vetoed by Governor Bob Holden on both occasions. Blunt champions the legislation and believes that its enactment is essential to end the exodus of Missouri doctors to Kansas and other states thereby assuring Missourians greater access to health care. The legislation would impose limits on damages, make it more difficult to sue doctors, and would curb frivolous lawsuits.

McCaskill supported Holden’s vetoes. She, however, explained “I’m for litigation reform. But, I’m not just for the big corporations.”

She accused Blunt of adopting the same stance on litigation reform that is promoted by the Missouri Chamber of Commerce. The chamber has endorsed Blunt’s candidacy.

Blunt, who has received the wide financial support from Missouri doctors and health care professionals, charged that McCaskill had reaped more than $3 million in campaign contributions from trial attorneys.

He further criticized McCaskill for remarking to a group of doctors at a St. Louis forum that the reason that reforms are not passed is that for every 1 dollar that a doctor makes in political contributions, a trial attorney gives $1,000. McCaskill said that Blunt had taken her words out of context. She explained that she was trying to get them involved in the political process. Blunt said that a citizen should not have to give money to be part of the process.

The candidates quibbled over their education records. As he has consistently throughout his campaign, Blunt vowed that he would never withhold money from education that was appropriated by the legislature as Governor Holden did this year. He insisted that in a Blunt administration Missouri’s school children will never be “pawns in a political battle.” He said that administrators need to know how much money they are receiving from the state and be able to plan with it.

Blunt also promised to never send fewer dollars to Missouri’s classrooms than the previous year. McCaskill, however, charged that Blunt, while in the state legislature, twice sponsored legislation that would have reduced funding for education in exchange for tax relief for businesses.

McCaskill said that her audits have demonstrated how to reduce waste in education and redirect those dollars to the classrooms. She specifically referred to excessive travel expenditures by school officials as well as golden parachutes given to top administrators.

Blunt further criticized McCaskill for opposing a requirement that all state lottery proceeds go directly to education, while she was in the general assembly. He opposes the diversion of the state’s gambling proceeds from education.

Regarding the erosion of Missouri’s jobs over the last four years, candidates agreed that the trends were moving in the right direction but that more could be done. Blunt cited tax, litigation, and workers’ compensation reforms as being at the core of creating an entrepreneurial climate in the state that is more conducive to job growth.

While she disagreed with Blunt’s specific remedies, McCaskill too agreed that Missouri could do much better but promoted no specific plan in the debate to grow Missouri’s job base. Both candidates have detailed job recovery plans posted on their websites.

Both support Missouri’s Amendment 3. It would require all proceeds from Missouri’s gas taxes to go for highway construction.

McCaskill said that her audits exposed highway tax proceeds being used for programs in other state agencies. Blunt ridiculed McCaskill for taking credit for uncovering the practice, which has been widely known and contentiously debated for years.

“It doesn’t take an audit to show money is being diverted” he countered. “It’s in the budget.”

Until recently, McCaskill’s office accepted tax dollars that were diverted from the Department of Transportation. She said that she believed that it was legitimate to use transportation dollars to audit the department.

The statewide televised debate was sponsored by KMBC-TV, The Kansas City Star, KCPT-TV, and KCUR-FM. The last scheduled debate between the two gubernatorial hopefuls will be held in Springfield this Friday.



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