Holden, McCaskill face off in first debate

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Gov. Bob Holden and State Auditor Claire McCaskill clashed over school funding and who could provide the most effective leadership as they faced off Monday night in their first debate in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.

Holden, who is seeking a second four-year term, sought to emphasize his support for education and health care and the work his administration has done to create jobs in Missouri.

McCaskill, meanwhile, emphasized the hundreds of money-saving recommendations in the audits her office has done, suggesting that if elected governor she could immediately put them in place. Faulting Holden's accomplishments, she held herself out as a candidate who "not only fights for the things that matter, but wins."

McCaskill is challenging Holden in the Aug 3. Democratic primary. They also are to debate today in St. Louis. The winner of the primary is expected to face Republican Secretary of State Matt Blunt in the November election.

Twice during the hour-long debate, Holden and McCaskill were allowed to question one another. Holden accused McCaskill of "putting misinformation out there about my commitment to education," referring to TV ads in which McCaskill accuses Holden of recommending funding cuts to education and needlessly withholding money from public schools -- even as the state's budget improved.

"You know how committed I am to the public schools of this state; how can you do that in good conscience?" Holden asked McCaskill.

She responded, "The issue is not your commitment; the issue is what has happened under your administration."

McCaskill held herself out as the Democrats' best chance of retaining the governor's office in the November elections. She said Holden started his term "showing poor judgment" with a $1 million inaugural party and frequent airplane trips. As further evidence of Holden's alleged weakness, she also cited the Republican takeover of the state House in 2002, when some GOP candidates made Holden's leadership an issue.

Holden acknowledged spending too much on the party but defended his flights as part of his effort to create jobs and said he had repeatedly stood up to the Republican legislature.

In other issues:

McCaskill questioned Holden about why the state's hot line for food stamp recipients still is answered in India. Holden said he issued an executive order to prohibit "outsourcing" government contracts overseas. But McCaskill said he acted too slowly and should have found a way to cancel the contract for the food stamp hot line.

Both candidates said they would support an Aug. 3 ballot measure authorizing a casino in Rockaway Beach, which is near Branson, although McCaskill tempered her response with a "probably."

Asked to name one area in which their opponent was stronger, McCaskill said Holden was more detailed-focused than she; Holden said McCaskill was very committed to her values and beliefs.

Asked to name their biggest mistake, Holden said he should have explained to the public sooner the seriousness of the state's budget troubles; McCaskill said she overestimated her ability to force change from the auditor's office, bemoaning that many of her audit recommendations get ignored.

Asked about what he would do to improve rural Missouri, Holden said, "The key to the success of small-town Missouri is a well-educated work force." McCaskill said one way to focus on rural Missouri would be to have debates in places such as Sikeston, Poplar Bluff, Springfield, Hannibal or Kirksville. "I am disappointed the governor has been unwilling to hold debates in outstate Missouri," she said. "It contributed to the perception that Democrats don't care about people that live outside of Kansas City and St. Louis."

Only about 200 people got to watch the debate in person. A problem with the satellite feed from Kansas City messed up the picture and sound of the debate's closing moments. The glitch obliterated all but 33 seconds of Holden's two-minute closing statement, while McCaskill's closing remarks came through clear.

Similar roots

Although the debate got terse at times, Holden and McCaskill shook hands at the beginning and end. Holden, 54, and McCaskill, 50, share the same political roots. Both won election to the Missouri House in 1982 and served six years before exiting leaving office for awhile. Holden eventually served two four-year terms as state treasurer before narrowly winning the 2000 governor's election. After serving as the Jackson County prosecutor, McCaskill won two terms as state auditor, the current of which runs through 2006.

Their campaign already has been costly. Holden had spent more then $4.3 million and McCaskill just under $3 million as of June 30. Much of that money has gone toward ads.

Two other lesser-known Democrats also are in the primary -- Cole County Auditor Jim LePage of Jefferson City and suburban Kansas City resident Jeffery Emrick -- but neither was invited to participate in the media-sponsored debates.

Campaigning Monday in St. Louis, Blunt outlined his plan for senior citizens, proposing higher Medicaid reimbursements for the best long-term care facilities and a transfer of the Medicaid division to the Department of Health and Senior Services, away from the Department of Social Services, which also oversees the welfare and children's foster care systems.

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