Gubernatorial candidates square off

Friday, September 12, 2008

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon and Republican Congressman Kenny Hulshof squared off in their first debate Thursday, clashing over campaign finance limits and how best to help students afford rising higher education costs.

The forum also included Libertarian Andy Finkenstadt and Constitution Party candidate Gregory Thompson. The debate on the University of Missouri campus was hosted by the Missouri Press Association and occurred in conjunction with a celebration of the centennial of the university's school of journalism.

Only once did an exchange prompt the debate moderator to call for a rebuttal, when the candidates discussed campaign contribution limits. During that exchange, Hulshof noted that although he would have signed into law the repeal of the limits that Gov. Matt Blunt signed, he prefers a plan he previously outlined to reinstate the limits with greater reporting requirements.

Nixon, raising his voice, responded: "He doesn't get it both ways. ... He doesn't get the opportunity to stand here in front of you and say he supports limits when he said he would sign the bill ending campaign limits.

"That may be the way they work in Washington, but in Jeff City and Missouri, that's not the doublespeak we operate under."

After the debate, Hulshof said the current system, without limits, is better than the previous one with limits in which big donors funneled money through various committees to get around them.

The candidates were asked about the problem of helping families deal with rising college costs. Nixon touted his "Missouri Promise" plan that would offer students who get good grades and perform community service the chance for four years of free college tuition.

But Hulshof criticized the plan because it requires students to begin at a community college before moving on to a university.

"We shouldn't pick community colleges at the expense of four-year institutions," Hulshof said.

Hulshof's higher education plan would increase the amount of money for financial needs scholarships, with a portion dedicated to students focusing on math and science.

Otherwise, there were few fireworks.

"I want to put out on the table that I have high regard for the attorney general," said Hulshof, who briefly worked under Nixon in the attorney general's office before being elected as Missouri's 9th District congressman in 1996. "But isn't the greatness of our country the ability to hold someone in regard and yet be able to aggressively disagree with them, and distance yourselves or define yourselves and your positions?"

Both Hulshof, 50, and Nixon, 52, said the state was at a "crossroads." Hulshof made references to problems he said were created during Democrat Bob Holden's administration. Nixon took several jabs at Blunt, who decided early this year not to seek a second term.

"The people of Missouri will decide this November whether we continue with the same failed policies or whether we'll change direction and move forward again," said Nixon, who served in the Missouri Senate before being elected attorney general in 1992.

In his closing statement, Hulshof responded: "With all respect, when you've been in Jefferson City for 22 years and now suddenly say you're an agent of change, well, that pushes the bounds of credulity."

"I'm offering a new way," he said, "new direction."

The two major party candidates offered differing ideas on helping low-income Missourians gain better access to affordable health care.

Hulshof's "Healthy Missouri Access Exchange," or HealthMAX, seeks to expand coverage to the uninsured by making it easier for them to buy private insurance plans.

Nixon again pledged to reverse the 2005 Medicaid cuts by Blunt and the GOP-led legislature that eliminated or reduced benefits to hundreds of thousands of recipients.

They were also asked how they would resolve the ongoing legal dispute over the release of e-mails from Blunt's office. Nixon's office has sued to obtain the computerized backup e-mail files from the governor's office, which wants to charge $540,000 to provide them.

The lawsuit arose after a former Blunt aide claimed he was fired for raising concerns that the office had deleted e-mails in violation of Missouri's open records law.

Nixon said he would turn over the e-mails to the attorney general's office. Hulshof said he feels "official correspondence" in the governor's office is disclosable.

Finkenstadt, a 42-year-old software engineer from St. Charles, stressed the need for less government and more rights for individuals. "We defend each person's right to participate in any activity that is peaceful and honest," he said.

Thompson, 57, is a longtime school superintendent and an ordained minister. He cited a need to improve morality in the state and return God to the classroom.

"We need to put God first," Thompson said. "We've gotten out of that order, where the government thinks you serve them, rather than them serving you."

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