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By Lindsay Toler
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These days, GOP leaders play down the idea that Hulshof is the anointed candidate. "There are supporters for both candidates on the state committee," says party chairman Doug Russell. "There are some that feel it would be better not to have a primary. Primaries are not always bad things. It's important to keep it on a positive level."
Since announcing her candidacy on January 26, Steelman has been on a tight and disciplined schedule, attending Republican events and cold-calling for dollars. At the end of 2007, her campaign committee had $296,773 in the bank. She's retained a consultant, Jeff Roe, a former Republican operative and author of the blog The Source. Roe had been working on her campaign for treasurer. When she entered the race for governor, his Kansas City-based firm, Axiom Strategies, quickly switched gears. Her deputy treasurer, Doug Gaston, took a leave from his official duties and began work on her gubernatorial campaign from Jefferson City. But as of the official candidate filing date on February 26, Steelman had yet to hire an experienced campaign manager.
It's too early to count Steelman out, says pollster and Saint Louis University professor Ken Warren. "Kenny Hulshof is popular in Republican circles, but to tell the truth, Sarah Steelman has more name recognition with the voters at large."
Dave Robertson, a University of Missouri-St. Louis political science professor, is less optimistic about Steelman's chances in the August 5 primary, mainly because he believes Hulshof will raise far more money. But, he adds, her youthful looks just might prove to be a valuable asset.
"In the battle of images, she can hold her own," he says. "Especially with Jay Nixon, who looks like this typical Missouri politician, upper-middle-aged white guy."
The Steelmans linger at Montauk's opening-day scene long enough to see a fisherman haul in a lunker. David and Sarah had only a few hours of sleep after attending a Republican dinner the night before in St. Charles, and David forgot to pack the tackle box. "I've fouled up the fishing," he proclaims. The couple, their son Michael, and David's mother, Maxine, climb into a black Chevy Suburban and head for breakfast at the lodge.
Sarah notices that the car rolling ahead of them belongs to Frank Barnitz, the Democrat who won the 16th District Senate seat that Steelman abandoned in her 2004 bid for treasurer. The Oldsmobile Aurora bears a Jay Nixon campaign sticker on the back window and a personalized license plate, number S-16. "I never used that plate," she says, almost under her breath. It's a modest-sounding but pointed observation.
To Steelman, whether a state official uses reserved license plates is an important distinction. "I just don't think elected officials should be treated any differently than regular citizens," she says. "It just doesn't seem right to me to have a special plate because you're elected by the people." (Her Suburban's plates say "LIVFRE.")
Steelman has built her career around such righteous assertions. And in the year of John McCain's presidential nomination, Steelman, a longtime supporter of the Arizona maverick, plays up her own independent streak. "That's why the 'establishment' doesn't always rally behind me," she says. "I'm interested in standing up for taxpayers and voters."
Recently, she had a run-in with fellow Republicans over Show Me Ethanol. The $82 million plant cannot qualify for a cheap, taxpayer-financed loan until its investors comply with the treasurer's strict conflict-of-interest policy. The Associated Press reported in January that the ethanol plant's 700 investors include Chillicothe state representative John Quinn, his wife Mary, and the governor's brother, Andy Blunt. Steelman's policy requires the elected officials and their relatives to sell their shares. As a result, the loan has been delayed for more than a year.
A top agriculture official and old senate colleagues paid visits to her office. "I caught so much grief from people," she says quietly, while sitting in a booth at the McDonald's in Salem. A Rolla Bulldogs baseball cap shields her eyes and her long hair falls down around her face like a protective curtain. The intense lobbying on Show Me Ethanol made her doubt her hard-line stance, she says. Then she sought advice from her two wise men, her 82-year-old father, John Hearne, and her father-in-law. "They agreed with me — of course not," she says, her voice rising to a stubborn tone. "Elected officials shouldn't reap the benefits."
Steelman avoids naming those who have opposed her various crusades. She says she harbors no grudges. Her husband, though, can't help but keep score. Says David Steelman: "I remember the enemies."
David Steelman plays a central role in his wife's campaigns. "He is a very, very analytical thinker, and that helps her," says Franc Flotron, a former senator from Chesterfield and friend of the family. Flotron adds, "She is by no stretch of the imagination David's pawn."
An older generation will remember David Steelman as the hotshot politician; his home district elected him as a state representative in 1978, the year he graduated at the top of his University of Missouri-Columbia law class. In the House, he rose to the rank of minority floor leader.
David Steelman earned a reputation as a gloves-off campaigner in 1992, when he ran for attorney general and lost to none other than Jay Nixon. The race was a slugfest. "That thing digressed into, 'You smoked dope. You didn't pay your child support,'" recalls Nixon's former campaign manager, Chuck Hatfield. Hatfield adds that Nixon had in fact admitted to trying marijuana, and Steelman's first wife had gone to court, seeking support for their daughter. A Steelman campaign with Sarah as the candidate would be just as aggressive, Hatfield predicts. "They're not going to overlook anything," he says. "They're not afraid to not only punch back, but to throw the first punch."