By DAVID A. LIEB
Missouri U.S. Senate candidates Todd Akin and Sarah Steelman found common ground Monday night in criticizing President Barack Obama and the federal Education Department but sparred over which one of them would wield the biggest ax in cutting government spending.
Steelman, a former state treasurer, and Akin, a congressman from suburban St. Louis, appeared jointly before an audience at the Branson High School Auditorium in a debate that was broadcast live and streamed over the Internet by radio station KOMC.
The two Republicans are seeking to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill in the November elections. A third Republican Senate candidate - St. Louis businessman John Brunner - declined to attend the debate but sought to generate his own headlines by releasing his campaign finance figures in the middle of the forum. Brunner said he poured $1 million of his own money into the race since he declared his candidacy in October through the end of December.
Brunner spent most of that money on ads seeking to introduce him to voters and criticizing McCaskill, leaving his campaign with about $200,000 at the start of 2012.
During the debate, Steelman noted Brunner's absence and accused him of "basically trying to buy this election with 30 second ads." She added: "The way I look at it is that's what wrong with politics today."
Akin also sought to contrast himself with Brunner, a former contributor to his congressional campaign, by noting that he relied largely on individuals for donations while Brunner "can easily drop a couple million dollars in his campaign by talking to himself."
Both Akin and Steelman emphasized the role of the private sector in improving the economy when they were asked during the nearly two-hour debate about what could be done to create jobs.
Akin said Obama has "systematically produced an environment designed to destroy jobs" by burdening businesses with regulations and taxes, making it more difficult for businesses to get loans through banks, increasing government spending and generally creating an uncertain business environment.
Steelman also faulted Obama's administration for creating an uncertain environment for businesses but added a dig at Akin, saying: "Unless we change those people in Washington, we're not going to change the economic climate in this state."
Asked what federal agencies they would like to eliminate, Akin and Steelman said they supported getting rid of the U.S. Department of Education. Akin also cited the Department of Commerce as an "incredibly mettlesome" agency ripe for elimination along with the Department of Energy - though he said its supervision of the nation's nuclear stockpile was important enough that the duty would need to be carried out by some other agency.
Akin said the federal Environmental Protection Agency "is so bad you almost have to just get rid of it and start over."
Steelman then pressed him about why he hadn't done so while serving in Congress for the past decade, and about why Republicans had failed to make more significant budget cuts when they controlled both chambers of Congress and the presidency.
"People are tired of hearing rationalizations," Steelman said. "Nothing ever gets cut."