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A year out, political attacks focus on image

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 11, 2011 - The media frenzy over a photo of Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder with a former Penthouse Pet-turned-bartender -- and her subsequent disparaging interviews -- plays into typical August antics in a non-election year.

Candidates busily raise campaign cash. Officeholders host sometimes-contentious town halls. Political parties and operatives focus on defining the expected opposition.

Until Thursday, Kinder and his allies had been publicly saying nothing -- but claiming privately that politics may be at work in the admittedly damaging episode regarding the bartender.

They assert that Democrats orchestrated the circulation of the photo as part of a broader move to raise questions about Kinder's character. The lieutenant governor, a Republican, has been expected to challenge Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, in 2012.

Kinder broke his silence Thursday with a statement:

"Like most people I am not proud of every place I have been, but this woman's bizarre story is not true. The Democrats have tried to use these tactics against me in the past and they have failed. Jay Nixon may want to make up false stories about the past, but I, like most Missourians, remain focused on the issues that are important to Missourians like jobs and education."

Replied the Missouri Democratic Party in a statement: "If these disturbing reports are so untrue, why did it take Peter Kinder six days to say anything? Peter Kinder is obviously in a pretty sad and desperate place right now. Unfortunately, Kinder would rather blame others for his own unusual and inappropriate behavior than take responsibility and offer a real explanation."

Democrats also deny they had any role in orchestrating the bartender controversy. "If we were doing this, we'd be doing it in January 2012, not now,'' said one top local party official privately.

In any case, the incident exemplifies what political science professor David Kimball calls "politics by other means."

"The aim is to create a bad first impression,'' said Kimball, with the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "Certainly, a big part of campaigning is trying to define your opponent."

Examples abound. There's the Republican Party's successful decimation of the war-hero image of 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, which was countered in 2008 when Democrats painted GOP nominee John McCain as an aging, out-of-touch politician who didn't even know how many houses he owned.

In this case, the Missouri Democratic Party asserts that Kinder's "odd and inappropriate behavior is raising serious questions about his judgment."

Tainting a candidate's image can kill off his or her political prospects, by making it less likely that the public will pay attention to the candidate's stands on issues.

Which helps explain why Kinder, in his statement, sought to quickly pivot from his own troubles to an attack on Nixon: "Under Jay Nixon's leadership... Our schools are failing, our families are hurting and I will remain focused on talking about the issues that will move Missouri forward."

Republicans Go After McCaskill's Integrity

In Missouri, Kinder isn't the only one facing personal attacks. National and state Republican groups already have tagged U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., with the moniker "Chameleon Claire" -- using it in almost every verbal volley.

The GOP narrative is that McCaskill changes her stances, depending on her audience, and that she says one thing while doing another. The most glaring example in the latter category was her family's failure -- now corrected -- to pay St. Louis County personal property taxes for several years on a plane they co-owned and hangared in the county.

Said the National Republican Senatorial Committee in a typical recent release: "As with her troubling ethical lapses, Show-Me-State voters are going to hold McCaskill accountable for her broken promises and failed tax-and-spend agenda."

Explained Kimball: "With her, the aim is clearly to weaken her image as an auditor, to weaken her integrity. If she didn't pay her taxes, that puts a dent in that image."

Speaking in general, McCaskill -- who first disclosed the unpaid taxes -- says she's distressed by what she calls "this smear match'' already underway.

She asserts that getting personal is unnecessary, given the stark policy differences between Democrats and Republicans on many of the critical issues the country faces.

McCaskill, seeking re-election in 2012, already has been the target of TV and internet attack ads. Most have been launched largely by two independent groups -- American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS -- that get their money from anonymous donors.

Some of her allies contend that some of that cash comes from companies upset with McCaskill's focus on scrutinizing federal contracts for waste, fraud and abuse.

The senator said the anonymity of the money bothers her more than the attacks. "The most frustrating part about the personal negative attacks is that you don't know who's paying for it, so you can't make a judgment about the bias."

McCaskill contended that her campaign has avoided making any personal jabs at her two announced Republican rivals -- former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman and U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Wildwood.

The senator often, however, has used the words "extreme'' or "extremism'' in describing Republican stances -- although she hasn't specified particular candidates.

National Democratic operatives also are already in Missouri to collect potentially damaging personal information about Steelman and Akin.

The congressman has come under fire over accusations that he had continued to vote in Town and Country after moving to Wildwood. He also faced a wave of criticism in June over his assertion on the radio that "at the heart of liberalism really is a hatred for God."

But such controversies pale next to Kinder's troubles.

Hotels, Bars and Urban Lifestyle

All sides agree that the focus on the bartender has, at the moment, made it impossible for Kinder to campaign on issues -- or effectively attack Nixon.

Kinder is still recovering from last spring's press attention over his travel expenses, which included at least 329 nights in St. Louis hotels during his six years in office. Kinder and his staff have maintained the lodgings were for official business -- even if some political events also were on the schedule -- and note that the hotels involved were on the state's list of recommendations.

To some, the real damage from that controversy was that it highlighted Kinder's strong urban ties -- a fact that might not play well in rural Missouri, where most Republican voters reside.

The latest episode over the photo feeds into a potentially damaging urban-playboy image for Kinder, who is single.

The photo was first published last week in the Riverfront Times and shows a smiling Kinder with an attractive bartender, who works at a St. Louis bar that advertises its "pantless nights'' -- for the staff, not the customers.

(A spokesman for Kinder has said it's unlikely that the lieutenant governor was in the bar on such occasions.)

But more damaging was the bartender's disparaging remarks this week about Kinder, which helped spark a flurry of speculative reports in news outlets -- and prompted a "worst person'' award for Kinder from liberal cable TV commentator Keith Olbermann.

The episode has touched off a Twitterfest, with a special site set up to gig Kinder. Many of the commenters are Democrats.

Until Thursday, Democrats had been focusing publicly on the silence of Kinder -- and of the Missouri Republican Party.

Typical is a statement from the national Democratic Governors Association: "In the ensuing days, the story has gotten worse with new allegations. But Kinder refuses to offer any explanation for his behavior."

The release contained links to various stories that all stem from the Riverfront Times' original account.

After Kinder issued his statement, the state Democratic Party contended that he had failed to answer most of the questions that continued to swirl around him."No one forced Peter Kinder to go to a bar known for its 'pantless parties' or other adult establishments, just like no one forced Kinder to bill taxpayers thousands of dollars so he could stay at luxury hotels while attending fancy parties," the party said. "Peter Kinder is responsible for his own unusual behavior and the people of Missouri deserve a real explanation from him."

Even some of Kinder's allies privately acknowledged that prolonged silence may not have been golden.

The state Republican Party also went public Thursday, with executive director Lloyd Smith discounting any talk of replacing Kinder as the party's likely Nixon challenger.

Smith contended that the bartender, Tammy Chapman, had been part of a setup "to obviously bring Peter Kinder down.''

Smith went through a detailed timeline, beginning with Chapman approaching Kinder at the bar earlier this year and having some use her phone-camera to take her picture with the lieutenant governor.

"There's too much of a coincidence for this not to be a Democratic deal," Smith asserted.

The state GOP also wants to discourage anti-Kinder talk within its own ranks. Radio host Renee Hulshof, the wife of 2008 GOP gubernatorial nominee Kenny Hulshof, has caused a buzz with her Wednesday evening Tweet: "I would like to know from my fellow Mo repubs what we are doing about a gubernatorial candidate."

But two Republicans mentioned as potential contenders -- state Sen. Ron Richard of Joplin and St. Louis businessman John Brunner -- denied any interest in running for governor next year. Brunner is sticking with his plan to jump into the U.S. Senate race, a spokesman said.

While Smith is among the Kinder allies who predict the photo-generated frenzy will soon cease, a few are engaging in gallows humor.

The best way for Kinder to quell the controversy, quipped one Republican ally, would be for his camp to ignore the bartender's racy past -- and discern whether she owed any back taxes.

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.

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