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The incumbent Missouri governor and his challengers in the Republican primary emphasize the role of a governor is to balance the protection of people's health with the rights assigned to individuals, especially during a pandemic that's highlighted the tension between the two.

Gov. Mike Parson is seeking a full term as Missouri's leader this election season.

Parson — an Army veteran, former sheriff and cattle rancher from Bolivar — was the state's lieutenant governor when he took the oath of office as governor June 1, 2018, following the resignation of Eric Greitens.

On Aug. 4, there will be three other Republican candidates also seeking the party's nomination to be the gubernatorial candidate in November: Raleigh Ritter, of Seneca; term-limited Rep. Jim Neely, of Cameron; and Saundra McDowell, of Springfield — listed in the order they will be on the ballot, with Parson to be between Ritter and Neely.

Ritter said his main business is processing railroad steel, but he's also involved in commercial real estate and cattle ranching.

Neely has represented the state's 8th House District, and he's an Army veteran and physician, having practiced medicine for 35 years.

McDowell is an Air Force veteran who was an intensive care cardiac medic, and she's since been a lawyer in private and public practice — the latter including with the state's attorney general and secretary of state offices — and candidate for state auditor.

Ritter, Parson, Neely and McDowell have things in common when it comes to how they view the most important roles of governor.

Ritter said a governor must support and defend the state and U.S. constitutions and defend the will of the people. On what qualifies him for the role, he said he's a successful businessman who would not go to Jefferson City in a financially-burdened state, and therefore, he would be harder to "be bought" by special-interest groups.

Parson said it's important for a governor to realize blanket policies don't work for Missouri. He said "experience matters" when it comes to often making major decisions, and he said one thing he's learned is the importance of "building relationships, being a good listener, then really trying to attack the problem itself."

Neely described how government should get out of the way of people being empowered to run their own lives, and government should be more efficient — "We need to perform, not have a performance."

McDowell said the governor's most important roles are to protect people's rights and make sure the state is run properly, as well as know the needs of local communities across the state, and bring jobs to the state. She said she would make each state agency more efficient.

Politics meets a pandemic this year, though, and the dual health and economic crises that Missouri continues to deal with have highlighted a governor's other roles of guardian of the public's health and the state's top emergency response manager.

Reflecting on his role so far in protecting public health, Parson said it was important to have Missouri-specific infection models, realize it's a problem to be dependent on other countries or states, and know what groups of people are most at risk, so as to avoid stretching resources too thin.

He has in recent days and weeks said he does not anticipate shutting the state down again or mandating the public wear masks — which help contain the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 — and he has pushed for schools to reopen for in-person learning in the fall, though guidance released by his administration last week recommended teachers wear masks, which would also benefit older students and all students in crowded settings.

Missouri has been without any statewide public health restrictions since June 16, though local authorities can implement measures such as shutting down activities or having the public wear masks.

In many ways, Parson's primary challengers said they would take a similar approach, though some offered even more hardline approaches.

The caveat to all the candidates' plans is it's impossible for anyone at this point to predict exactly what the situation with the pandemic or the economy is going to be later this year or early next.

However, that doesn't change candidates' current priorities and approaches going into the uncertain future ahead.

Ritter said he would not lock down the state again, would not force private businesses or churches to close, and would not shut down schools, so long as appropriate precautions are in place.

Beyond that, he said what's needed is "herd immunity" — in the absence of a COVID-19 vaccine any time soon, have enough of the population become infected so 60-70 percent of people develop immunity to the disease, while having the elderly and other at-risk groups such as immuno-compromised people take precautions.

"We've done what we could to flatten the curve; the virus is going to progress," Ritter said.

Neely also advocated for herd immunity — more or less agreeing in concept, if not necessarily in the exact terminology.

"I would be nurturing relationships with the folks that haven't opened up and (be) telling people we need to remove the masks," get healthy people active and involved, and "quarantine the people that need to be quarantined" — such as the immuno-compromised or frail, Neely said. He did not think teachers or students need masks, either.

"We just need to get back to work. You get satisfaction about being productive," he said.

McDowell said she would never have shut down the state, and doesn't think it should be done again. She said more public health restrictions may be needed in the future, but authorities should start with the least restrictive measures and expand from there.

She said she would not close down churches, would never mandate masks, thinks schools should be open for students and would not allow county officials do things such as fine businesses.

Parson said in his future response he would want to get back to some fundamentals of infrastructure — education, health care, workforce development — all of which is critical for moving the state forward, and "Those opportunities are still out there."

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