ST. LOUIS (AP) - Missouri businessman John Brunner enthusiastically endorsed Mitt Romney for president Friday night, but his two rival GOP Senate candidates appeared more hesitant to do so as they clashed during the first - and perhaps last - televised debate before the August primary election.
Brunner, who like Romney is a wealthy businessman, praised the presumptive Republican presidential nominee as "just the kind of leader we need right now" when he was asked during the debate whether Romney was conservative enough for him.
U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, who repeatedly cast himself as Missouri's most conservative congressman during the debate, said he was "just going to wait and see, issue by issue, for what he does" before deciding whether to support Romney. As he did with former President George W. Bush, Akin said he would support Romney sometimes but oppose him if he tries to increase bureaucracy.
Former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman, who has the endorsement of the Tea Party Express, largely avoided a direct answer about her support for Romney, instead stressing: "I have fought the establishment from day one of my political career." A Steelman spokesman later said that like Akin, she would work with Romney on an issue-by-issue basis.
The three Republicans will compete in an Aug. 7 primary for the right to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill in the November election. Missouri's Senate race is one of several close contests around the nation that could help determine whether Republicans can wrest control of the Senate away from Democrats. It already has attracted millions of dollars of TV advertising from interest groups.
During Friday's debate, which was held in St. Louis but televised statewide, the Republican candidates all reiterated their vow to repeal President Barack Obama's health care law and offered similar plans for the economy based on less government spending, taxes and regulation, and a reduced national debt.
But the candidates clashed when they accused one another of distorting each other's professional backgrounds and positions on issues.
Brunner, who previously contributed money to Akin's congressional campaigns, has been running TV ads claiming Akin and Steelman were "manufacturing debt" by votes they took as federal and state lawmakers. On Friday, Brunner accused "my good friend Congressman Akin" of "working to introduce a bill requiring all Americans to purchase health care" in 2009 - similar to the insurance mandate in Obama's 2010 health care law that the Republican candidates roundly denounced. Brunner later cited a February 2009 article in the online St. Louis Beacon publication backing up that claim.
Akin did not directly challenge the assertion during the debate, but declared of Brunner: "He's got a mud factory going." Akin campaign spokesman Ryan Hite said afterward that the congressman's staff had studied the potential for a health insurance mandate but Akin ultimately decided against it and never introduced such legislation.
Steelman sought to turn the criticism to Brunner. She highlighted that he had contributed money to St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley, a Democrat whom she described as "pro-abortion, anti-gun and pro-Obama." Brunner said Dooley was a friend who understands the issues for minorities and jobs and had met with Brunner at his Vi-Jon manufacturing plant, which makes personal health care products.
While sparring over whose personal background best qualified them for the Senate, Steelman claimed Brunner had inherited his family's business, which was founded in the early 1900s. Brunner took offense, asserting that he had bought the company from his father.
Asked by a debate moderator whether he was in touch with the middle-class, Brunner described how he "traveled millions of miles" to sell orders, served as a mechanic in the manufacturing plant, drove forklifts and loaded trucks while rebuilding the family's company from 40 workers to about 1,400 employees.
Akin said he is part of the middle class and recounted how he has changed the oil in his own car.
Steelman said she worked since age 14, cleaning houses and flipping hamburgers before starting two business ventures - one that failed, the other which she said succeeded.
Brunner repeatedly characterized his two rivals as "career politicians." Akin, who served in the state Legislature before winning election to the U.S. House in 2000, took particular umbrage at that.
"I think it's sad if anybody looks at their job as a career," Akin said. "I think all of us should look at our job as a calling, where we're doing something God put in our hearts to do to the very best of our ability."