The Associated Press

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — There is no incumbent in Missouri’s gubernatorial race. But that’s hard to tell from the way the Republican primary is shaping up.

U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof has the incumbent-like support of the party establishment, including the state’s entire Republican congressional delegation, a majority of state Republican lawmakers and key interest groups in the business and agricultural sectors.

State Treasurer Sarah Steelman, meanwhile, is campaigning as if she were the challenger. She’s highlighting Hulshof’s actions as an incumbent congressman and initiating negative TV ads that often are indicative of an outsider trying to gain political traction.

What’s unclear is which tactic will work in the Aug. 5 Republican primary, where the winner will advance to an expected contest with Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon.

Generally speaking, 2008 appears to be a good year to be a challenger.

Democratic Sen. Barack Obama, for example, prevailed as the newcomer against the more established Sen. Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential contest. But Obama’s “change” theme was aided by record-breaking fundraising and an energetic speaking style.

Steelman lacks those latter two advantages. In fact, it is Hulshof who often appears as the smoother public speaker.

Campaigning as the outsider also is “a harder line to walk in a primary election than in a general election,” said political scientist Marvin Overby, of the University of Missouri-Columbia, primarily “because you’re appealing to people who identify themselves as Republicans.”

Primary voters generally are more politically involved than those in the general election, and thus more likely to be connected to the political establishment.

Then-Auditor Claire McCaskill showed that a challenger can prevail in Missouri’s gubernatorial primaries when she unseated Gov. Bob Holden in the 2004 Democratic primary. McCaskill ultimately lost to Republican Matt Blunt, then the secretary of state, in the general election.

It was Blunt’s decision not to seek re-election this year that opened the race up to Hulshof and Steelman.

As the outsider to the Democratic Party establishment, McCaskill was the first to run a negative TV ad against her opponent in the 2004 primary. Likewise, Steelman was the first to go negative on TV this year, casting Hulshof as a free-spending, pork-barrel backer in Congress who even voted for federal Medicare and Medicaid funding of Viagra.

But there is a significant difference between the 2004 and 2008 primaries. Holden actually was the incumbent governor, making it easier for McCaskill’s criticisms to stick. Hulshof has had nothing to do with Jefferson City politics and decisions. So Steelman must try to transfer any negative implications from Hulshof’s congressional incumbency to his gubernatorial bid.

“Her footing isn’t as firm to overcome the Republican establishment support for Hulshof” as McCaskill’s was against Holden in 2004, said George Connor, acting chairman of the political science department at Missouri State University.

Steelman spokesman Spence Jackson shies away from describing her as the “outsider” candidate, noting she served in the state Senate six years before taking office as treasurer in 2005. But Jackson nonetheless repeatedly categorizes Hulshof as a “Washington insider.”

Although no official tally exists, Steelman’s campaign seems to have made more references to Hulshof’s work in Congress than has Hulshof’s own campaign. Hulshof’s early TV ads have instead highlighted his role as a farmer and former prosecutor (though Hulshof usually does mention his congressional record in campaign speeches.)

Besides the endorsements of federal and state lawmakers, Hulshof has been endorsed by the Missouri Chamber of Commerce, which typically remains neutral in primaries. Although not an official endorsement, Hulshof was the sole House member honored this spring by the American Farm Bureau. And the wife of the Missouri Republican Party’s officially neutral executive director was among those on the organizing committee for a Hulshof fundraiser last month.

“It’s wrong to assume that he just walked in to all of this built-up support” as the party establishment’s chosen successor to Blunt, said Hulshof campaign spokesman Scott Baker. “All of the endorsements, all of the support that’s come to date, and all that is left to come, is a result of people looking at both candidates and coming to the determination that Kenny is more qualified to lead our state.”

Given that Hulshof already has cornered the support of many Republican insiders, Steelman’s best chance may be to take on a challenger-type role.

“My impression is that the Republican establishment is much more comfortable with Hulshof than with Steelman,” said political scientist Peverill Squire, of the University of Missouri-Columbia. “I think given that Congress is not terribly popular, Steelman’s probably well-advised to sort of label Hulshof as a Washington insider and tie him to unhappiness, even among Republicans, with the way Washington has behaved over the past decade.”

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