Topeka — When speculation grew that Atty. Gen. Carla Stovall would drop out of the Republican governor's race, prominent moderates scrambled.
Many of them, allies of Gov. Bill Graves, had united behind Stovall as the best opponent against Republican State Treasurer Tim Shallenburger, seen as the conservatives' choice.
Moderates argue that Republicans need to put their strongest candidate forward if the GOP is to retain the governor's office this year.
They suggest Shallenburger would have difficulty winning or simply cannot win the Nov. 5 general election against the presumed Democratic nominee, Insurance Commissioner Kathleen Sebelius.
But moderates may fear a Shallenburger governorship as much or more than a Republican defeat.
They don't like the prospects of dealing with a conservative administration after losing a round in the ongoing and sometimes bitter feud between the GOP's two camps.
"The winner gets to do as he chooses," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Kenny Wilk, R-Lansing, a Stovall supporter. "We understand that."
Graves, whose administration has been a near-constant irritant in the political lives of some conservatives, is barred from seeking a third term.
Stovall and Shallenburger earned their labels largely from their Republican friends. Stovall has been an ally of Graves and legislative moderates like Sen. David Adkins of Leawood. Shallenburger has associated with prominent conservatives like U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback and U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt.
Moderates wanted a one-on-one match for the nomination, but the entry of Wichita Mayor Bob Knight in January complicated the race. Knight has avoided labels.
Moderates argue that they far outnumber conservatives in the party. Their proof was that Graves took 73 percent of the vote in the 1998 primary, when he was challenged by David Miller, a conservative former state GOP chairman.
But Graves was riding a wave of popularity from four years of good economic times and tax cuts, and he spent a record $1.6 million to run up his margin against Miller.
Stovall seemed the moderates' best successor, having won her second term as attorney general in 1998 with more than 75 percent of the vote.
With Stovall's departure expected, moderates worry about finding a strong candidate to replace her.
"We've got an ideological split in the GOP, and we've got to have candidates that reflect that," said moderate Sen. Sandy Praeger, R-Lawrence.
Moderates disagree with conservatives on a long list of issues. With Graves in office, moderates have someone to block anti-abortion legislation they oppose and fight for increases in education spending.
But both camps say the conflict has deeper roots.
Shallenburger contends moderates want to defeat him because they fear losing the patronage that goes with the governor's office.
Like many conservatives, Shallenburger has a populist perspective that views the Graves administration as a group of country clubbers that has at times enriched its members.
"There's a fear factor, and they're panicking," Shallenburger said.
Conservatives included Stovall in their criticism of moderate rule, noting her 1996 decision to hire her former law firm to handle litigation against large tobacco companies, resulting in fees of $27 million.
Stovall has said she picked the only qualified firm willing to take on the task without a guaranteed cut of the $1.7 billion the state received in a settlement of the litigation. Also, none of the fees came from the state.
"They fear his ideas on reforming government," said Sen. Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, a Shallenburger ally. "They'd rather have the status quo."
Moderates scoff at such an argument. Lt. Gov. Gary Sherrer points to Shallenburger's work in 1995-97 for BioCore Inc., a medical products company which received money from two state-supported funds and criticism over its operations.
Sherrer, who may run for governor, called conservatives' statements "a bunch of hooey."
Instead, Sherrer said, moderates are concerned about handing the reins of government over to conservatives who have made their political careers by attacking government.
"A state I care about needs someone who believes government can serve the needs of the people well," he said.
Moderates argue that Shallenburger is conservative enough that if he were the GOP nominee, Sebelius would attract moderate votes recalling the 1998 campaign season when many lawns in Johnson County sported signs for both Graves and Dennis Moore, the Democratic candidate in the 3rd Congressional District.
But the argument is more threat than political analysis, for the moderates would be bolting the party.
They understand that if Shallenburger were elected governor, he'd very likely bring conservative advisers with him, appoint conservative cabinet secretaries and officials and pursue the conservative policies Graves has held at bay.
"If he is elected with a strong conservative vote, I think there would have to be an agenda he would have to advance," Praeger said. "I think it would be tough for moderate Republicans."