While Hulshof was listening to Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, a Cape Girardeau resident, endorse his candidacy for governor, a man in a bright red lobster suit walked silently around holding a sign that proclaimed "More money for Maine" on one side and "Thanks for the $200,000, Kenny" on the other.
Hulshof, a six-term congressman from Columbia, faces Steelman, who has been treasurer since 2005 and held a state Senate seat before then, and two minor candidates in the Aug. 5 Republican primary. Steelman has focused recent criticism on Hulshof's votes in favor of bills with earmarked spending, including money for a Maine Lobster Institute associated with the University of Maine.
As he acknowledged the audience, Hulshof took note of a videographer sent by the Democratic Party and the picket, calling him "Larry the Lobster, who has been hired by the Steelman campaign because of a vote that they take raise questions about for the University of Maine, which is a land grant college."
To a round of laughter from the two dozen people in attendance, Hulshof said: "I guess my primary opponent thinks her economic plan is to hire a 20-something to wear the uniform of a crustacean. I personally would like to bring better paying jobs to Missouri than that."
Hulshof also took issue with Steelman's proposal to repeal the state law requiring Missouri gas stations to sell fuel that has a 10 percent ethanol blend. That would cause hardship for every consumer, Hulshof said, citing a University of Iowa study that concluded pump prices would be up to 40 cents per gallon higher if ethanol was not part of the fuel supply.
The issues, whether Hulshof is talking about his votes in Congress or ethanol, can't be dismissed that easily, said Spence Jackson, spokesman for Steelman. The lobster is there to remind voters of "Hulshof's record as a big Washington spender."
And Hulshof's support of ethanol is more than political, Jackson said, saying Hulshof was an investor in an ethanol plant. Hulshof actually is an investor in a Lilbourn, Mo., biodiesel plant.
"He's speaking as an investor," Jackson said. "If we don't repeal the mandate it is going to cost Missouri taxpayers $1 billion."
Jackson cited studies prepared for the EPA that show ethanol has had little or no effect on gasoline prices while putting significant pressure on food prices. Ethanol receives massive tax subsidies as well, Jackson noted and delivers fewer miles per gallon than gasoline.
According to the latest poll, conducted by Research 2000 for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and KMOV-TV, Hulshof is leading Steelman among likely Republican voters 32 percent to 24 percent with 27 percent undecided. The poll also reported that Steelman has a lead on Hulshof in some areas, especially Southwest Missouri.
The winner will likely face Attorney General Jay Nixon, who has only token opposition in the Democratic primary, in the fall campaign. The same poll showed Nixon with a nine to 11 point edge over both potential opponents.
The endorsement, three weeks before voters go to the polls, marks Kinder's transformation from potential rival to full-fledged supporter.
Kinder initially jumped into the campaign for governor in January when Gov. Matt Blunt announced he would not seek a second term. But he withdrew a few weeks later, citing the need to preserve party unity and protect offices currently held by the GOP.
In making the endorsement, Kinder said he based it on longtime friendship with Hulshof, policy agreements and his evaluation of who can make the strongest race against Nixon.
"My endorsement has nothing to do with assaulting or tearing down another candidate," Kinder said.
Hulshof said he was honored by Kinder's endorsement, especially knowing that Kinder also has his eye on state's highest office.
"I know how hard it is when you put personal ambition aside," Hulshof said. In 2003, Hulshof stepped back from a potential race for governor in favor of Blunt.
The endorsement will make little difference in the race, Jackson said. "This election will be decided by Republican primary voters, not party bosses."
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