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There's more to this election than pres and gov; just ask the down-ballot candidates

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: November 3, 2008 - As Missourians head for the polls, they may want to pause for a moment and dig the mud out of their ears.

In an election year that has focused on a historic presidential race, down-ballot Missouri state candidates have increasingly called attention to their own races by slinging dirtballs at their opponents.

Top prize goes to attorney general candidates Republican Mike Gibbons and Democrat Chris Koster, whose campaigns have spent millions in "can-you-top-this" commercials that escalated from criticisms of inexperience and wrong-way politics to charges of check bouncing, aiding mobsters and supporting clemency for a rapist.

Here is a roundup of the down-ballot races:

Lieutenant Governor

The race for lieutenant governor, between incumbent Republican Peter Kinder and Democratic state Rep. Sam Page of Creve Coeur, has grown increasingly nasty in recent days.

The office has a limited portfolio of responsibilities, but that hasn't kept Kinder, whose father was a physician, and Page, an anesthesiologist, from sniping at each other over Medicaid, other health-care issues, support for veterans, even the Tour of Missouri bicycle race. Kinder has made the bike race a showpiece of his tenure as lieutenant governor, while Page has called it a misuse of state development funds.

With polls showing that Democrat Jay Nixon leads Republican Kenny Hulshof in the race for governor, Kinder has taken great pains to highlight his ability to work with Democrats in Jefferson City and in the state's urban areas. But Page faults Kinder's support for a tax break for a developer to build in St. Louis and says Democrats will help him win his race.

Secretary of State

With her well-known political name and ample campaign fund, incumbent Robin Carnahan of St. Louis, a Democrat, has had the all-around advantage in the secretary of state's race. Republican challenger Mitch Hubbard of Fulton has raised minimal campaign funds, relying instead on word-of-mouth and public forums to reach voters.

Carnahan, daughter of late Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan and U.S. Sen. Jean Carnahan, has run on her record, pointing to improved efficiencies in the way her office does business, such as online business registration and improved accessibility to public records through the secretary of state's Web site. She also points to her work in regulating securities, including her role in forcing a $9 billion settlement with Wachovia Securities to return investments to investors who had been misled.

Hubbard, who has been active politically in recent state campaigns against stem-cell research, has challenged Carnahan for writing ballot language that he calls unfair and says she has not taken the issues of voter fraud seriously.

Attorney General

Until a year ago, the two lawyers vying for attorney general were both Republicans in the state Senate. But when Chris Koster switched to the Democratic Party, citing philosophical differences with the GOP, state politics took a wild turn -- first in the primaries and now in the general election.

Mike Gibbons, currently the majority leader of the Senate, ran unopposed in the Republican primary, while Koster eked out a win over a competitive field of Democratic candidates, including state Rep. Margaret Donnelly of Richmond Heights who demanded a recount. Koster not only took heat for switching parties, but was dogged by widely reported criticisms made by his ex-wife and charges that his campaign violated state fundraising laws. Those charges were dismissed by the state Ethics Commission.

In recent weeks, Gibbons and Koster have waged a verbal war with one another in commercials, gradually upping the ante from differences over party philosophy to Gibbons accusing Koster of ties to a mob family and Koster accusing Gibbons of supporting clemency for a rapist.

Gibbons, a lifelong resident of Kirkwood, has stressed his legislative leadership and ability to get things done by reaching out to opponents across the aisle. He has vowed to create a state task force to battle Internet crime.

Koster, the son of late St. Louis journalist Rich Koster, stresses his 10 years of trial experience as a prosecutor in Cass County. Koster has vowed to be an "activist attorney general'' who will tackle Medicaid fraud and stand up to corporate interests.

State Treasurer

State Rep. Clint Zweifel, a Democrat from Florissant, and state Sen. Brad Lager, a Republican from Savannah -- both in their early 30s -- have, for the most part, limited their shots at one another in the treasurer's race to differences in economic philosophy.

Lager stresses his experience as a small business owner and has vowed to use fiscal restraint in making government "better not bigger.'' Lager also believes that the private sector can often be counted on to get a job done more efficiently than a big government program.

Zweifel, who served as research and education director for Teamsters Local 688 and has the endorsement of the state's unions, argues that being fiscally liberal or conservative isn't as important as being "fiscally smart." Zweifel has been highly critical of Gov. Matt Blunt's Medicaid cuts and has taken Blunt and state Republicans to task for what he refers to as the "raiding'' of MOHELA, the state student loan agency.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.