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Onstage civility crumbles when GOP Senate candidates end forum

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: February 19, 2012 - KANSAS CITY -- The civil tone that marked Saturday's first forum featuring all three Republican candidates for the Missouri's U.S. Senate contest disappeared as soon as they left the stage.

The closing statements had just ended before the Lincoln Days morning crowd when St. Louis businessman John Brunner's campaign staff circulated a flyer. It accused former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman of advancing a "cut, copy and paste" platform and hiding a big-spending record.

Minutes later, Steelman tersely told reporters that Brunner apparently "didn't have the guts" to confront her on stage during the 90-minute forum. "If he didn't have the guts to bring it up to my face, I'm not going to address it," she said.

Steelman did, however, dispute the assertion of Brunner's campaign that her office budget had increased about 40 percent during her 4-year tenure from 2005-09. Brunner's campaign countered with links to state documents that his camp says verifies their claim. (Click here for her office's 2005 budget, as listed by the state Office of Administration, and here for the 2008 figures.)

Brunner campaign manager Jon Seaton said the issue wasn't raised during the forum because nobody asked the questions that would prompt such a response from Brunner. The "cut, copy and paste" accusation was directed at Steelman's new 60-point program, which Brunner's campaign says includes 20 points cited by others.

Steelman, in turn, made clear that she opposed the announced stance of her other rival -- U.S. Rep. Todd Akin -- in favor of turning Interstate 70 into a toll road, to finance reconstruction. Akin also called for "user fees" to finance various government operations, saying that was preferable to higher taxes.

"I'm against toll roads," Steelman said. Brunner also raised concerns, telling reporters "I'm against tolls. ... Let's deal with (government) waste before we increase the fees."

Steelman also repeated to reporters her earlier jabs at Brunner, which weren't raised during the forum, in which she noted that he had skipped two earlier debates involving her and Akin.

All three plan to compete in the August primary for the Republican nomination to take on U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.

Forum highlights traditional GOP views

The spirited exchanges after the forum contrasted with the low-key tone while it was going on, as all three focused on highlighting their individual stances -- and their opposition to various actions going on in Washington.

Although initially billed as a debate, the event was changed to forum when it was decided that there would be no rebuttals between the candidates. Organizers contended the change would keep the event from getting bogged down, while behind-the-scenes accusations flew as to which candidates objected to rebuttals.

The forum had been expected to be the marquee event at Lincoln Days,the annual statewide Republican gathering. But there were dozens of empty seats in the audience, in contrast to the packed rooms for Friday's banquet and Saturday's luncheon.

While on stage, the Senate candidates rarely made reference to each other, and kept their criticisms focused on McCaskill and Washington. 

All three Republicans called for more oversight, including an audit, of the Federal Reserve. All three blasted the federal government for overspending and the $15 trillion federal debt. All three called for the defeat of President Barack Obama and sought to tie him to McCaskill.

Brunner contended that "Obamacare," the GOP nickname for the federal health insurance changes, should instead be called "ObamaClaire." He also called for getting rid of the federal gasoline tax, and allowing only states to impose such taxes.

Steelman said she would stand up to "lobbyists, special interests, the big contributors" who she said often pressure members of Congress "to be with us this time" and vote a certain way. If elected, she said she would press for "zero-based budgeting" for the federal government.

Akin shot off some of the harshest verbal zingers, as he proposed cuts in federal farm subsidies, shouted "Get us out of the U.N.!" and referred to the federal government as "the Devil" (Akin later denied audience speculation that he had been referring to Obama).

All three said they would oppose any United States financial help to Europe, where Greece and some other nations are in economic trouble. Steelman asserted,  "The euro-zone has been a disaster."

Brunner rivals to rely on Super PACS?

The forum came amid increased whispers that some U.S. Senate hopefuls may soon become beneficiaries of "Super PACs" financed by supporters. That approach was cited as one way that state Auditor Tom Schweich might be enticed to jump into the contest as a late contender. So far, he has declined comment.

Lincoln Days activists were abuzz with talk that certain major state donors had volunteered to bankroll Schweich, or to help Steelman, by forming such political action campaigns, which can accept contributions of unlimited size but cannot coordinate their activities with the campaigns.

Like Schweich, the Steelman campaign declined any comment.

Such PACs are seen by some Republicans as the only way rivals can raise the finances to counter the hefty spending by Brunner, who already has put in $1 million of his own money into his campaign, and is expected to pour in more.

Brunner has been running TV ads for months, while Akin and Steelman have been holding off. Steelman has just begun running her first TV ad, according to a report in Politico.

One conservative Super PAC not aligned with any of the GOP Senate candidates -- Crossroads GPS, which is affiliated with former Bush advisor Karl Rove -- has been running attack ads on TV and radio for months against McCaskill.

McCaskill just now began running radio adsin response to Crossroads' latest radio buy.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.