Phill Kline wants voters to think of him as the attorney general candidate who most despises crime.
"The Kansas Sentencing Commission has failed," Kline said, because it endorsed early release of inmates to ease prison crowding and favored milder penalties for drug possession. "We need to impose more serious penalties all across the board. ... Our incarceration rate has fallen to 36th in the nation."
But because it is primary election time and the two factions known as the Kansas Republican Party are at each other's throats with refreshed vigor, many GOP voters want to know only this: Is he the conservative or moderate candidate?
Kline, 42, is on the conservative side of the narrow-but-deep divide that has made the GOP its own two-party system since the abortion issue emerged as a political demarcation line.
The Shawnee Republican has all the credentials that allow moderates to characterize him as the candidate of the "radical, religious right."
He is fervently anti-abortion, although his views on the issue aren't always mentioned in his campaign literature or Web site. He attends a conservative Protestant church and isn't ashamed to admit some would say flaunt the fact he "accepted Christ at age 12."
Moderate vs. conservative
Kansans for Life has endorsed Kline. Mary Ann Culp, acting executive director of the anti-abortion group, said members are convinced Kline, unlike Carla Stovall, the current officeholder, would use the position to help curb late-term abortions.
"Because Phill (has integrity) and understands the complexities of the life issues well, I think he would be a wonderful attorney general," Culp said. "There are some nuances and difficulties in understanding the federal and state laws on abortion, and Carla Stovall hasn't always properly interpreted or enforced those laws. We feel confident that Phill would. ...
"If we pass laws to stop this horrible practice, we need an attorney general who will go to the mat for us and to the Supreme Court if need be and stand up for the wishes of Kansans."
Across the state this primary season, GOP conservatives and moderates are squared off against each other, contesting everything from precinct committee seats to the governorship.
Historically, conservatives have provided a disproportionate share of GOP votes in the state's low-turnout August primaries.
Beyond that, moderates are running worried because the banner carriers at the top of the ticket for the conservatives, including gubernatorial candidate Tim Shallenburger and Kline, have track records that prove they can appeal to constituencies outside the groups that care mostly if not entirely about ending abortions.
Kansas Realtors are expected to decide Wednesday which candidates they will endorse and help finance through their political action committee. As a lawmaker, Kline voted the right way on various bills the Realtors wanted.
Last Friday, Kline and rival candidate David Adkins a moderate both were scheduled to appear before leaders of the Kansas City Regional Association of Realtors to answer questions about issues that interest the group, including the "no-call" telemarketing law Adkins championed and the Realtors disliked.
Kline was at the meeting as scheduled. Adkins missed the appointment. A spokesperson for the Realtors said Monday the group was leaning toward Kline.
Kline also earned regard from advocates for the developmentally disabled when he bucked the administration of Gov. Bill Graves and other Republican leadership on a funding issue.
In 1999, while chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Kline led a coalition of Republican conservatives and Democrats to get additional money for programs for the developmentally disabled and the mentally ill. The additional funds lessened the problem of waiting lists for community services and helped increase pay for workers in the programs.
"They got us some money," said Tom Laing, executive director of InterHab, a statewide association of 45 community programs that aid the disabled. "They shifted money around within the (welfare) budget, much to the chagrin of the administration."
Kline was later removed as committee chairman by then-House Speaker Robin Jennison. Laing said he thinks it was because Kline went against the Republican leadership to help secure the extra funding.
As chairman of the House Taxation Committee, Kline was at constant loggerheads with the governor about how big tax cuts should be. He was generally credited as the driving force behind the 1997-98 tax cuts that helped contribute to the state's current budget problems.
A boy in Shawnee
Kline grew up in the Kansas City suburb of Shawnee, the third of five children raised by a single, divorced mother.
Janet Kline said her son "was always running for things in school. All the way up, grade school on. He loved the idea of politics and law."
He also loved sports and excelled at cross country and wrestling. He later attended college on a wrestling scholarship.
Phill Kline, his wife and daughter now live in the house where he grew up. His mother said Phill and his family, her other children, other relatives, and her 17 grandchildren continue to live nearby and that the family gets together often.
"We're clannish. It's a wealth of family," she said. "We're very blessed."
Kline's first real political race came while he was still in law school at Kansas University.
In 1986, he ran against incumbent 2nd District Congressman Jim Slattery, a Democrat, and was whomped.
"I don't believe I've ever seen him disappointed," his mother said. "My sister always used to call me 'rubber butt' because I'd fall down and bounce back up, and that's what Phillip reminds me of."
In 2000, Kline ran for the 3rd District congressional seat against Democrat incumbent Dennis Moore. He lost by about 10,000 votes.
'Made the sacrifices'
Kline's political ambitions have hurt his family's income, according to one of Kline's closest and oldest friends. Jeff Sharp said he had known Kline since they were best buddies as high school sophomores. They've remained close since.
"People accuse him of just trying to get to higher office," Sharp said. "He absolutely believes he can make a difference, and he's made the sacrifices to prove it. He has literally given up almost every material comfort so he can pursue his dream of serving people this way."
Asked about Sharp's comment, Kline responded tersely, "We live modestly."
Asked how he managed to make a living between his frequent political campaigns, he was clearly annoyed.
Kline said he earned money with his law practice and a radio program he provided to 18 Kansas radio stations, including KLWN in Lawrence. The radio spots, called The Kansas File, offer vignettes of Kansas history. They are delivered at no cost to the radio stations with ads Kline sells to sponsors included.
When Kline claims he is a small business owner, he's talking about the radio show. But it's not clear how much of a business the radio show is.
KLWN manager Hank Booth said he instructed his staff several weeks ago to pull the spots to avoid violating equal-time provisions in federal broadcast regulations relating to political candidates.
Kline admitted the campaigns have hurt his law practice. He has allowed his law license to lapse repeatedly.
While he was in the Kansas House, Kline drew headlines for his involvement with a company called BioCore Inc. The company, which manufactured a wound patch, and its affiliates received about $750,000 in state loans and grants before hiring Kline, Shallenburger who was then House Speaker and Greg Packer, a third conservative Republican House member.
There were allegations from former employees that the company had profited from its ties to lawmakers and that the three House members were paid salaries they did little or nothing to earn. Atty. Gen. Carla Stovall investigated the company and found no indication the lawmakers had improperly assisted the company. Packer ended up paying fines for violating state campaign finance laws. But no sanctions were taken against Kline or Shallenburger.
"The attorney general investigated that and found I worked hard and earned my salary," Kline said of his BioCore involvement, which was not exactly what Stovall concluded. Stovall merely said there was no reason to charge Kline with a crime. He had resigned the company in 1996, before the investigation began.
Spinning the facts
In person, Kline is an amiable, fast-talking man with a quick laugh and an easy smile. His hair is thinning. He's built like a wrestler. He's quick to spew facts and figures to make a point.
Like most politicians, Kline has a way of casting facts or figures so they put him or his position in the most favorable light. But perhaps because he tends to do everything with enthusiasm and energy, he sometimes spins the facts so hard the truth is blurred.
For example: Like most candidates for attorney general, present and past, Kline talks a lot about crime, criminals and making the state safe.
Here's Kline on Kansas crime:
"Kansas now ranks 13th in the nation in murders, ahead of New York and Texas," Kline said, blasting Adkins for his favorable vote on the bill that prompted early release of many Kansas felons to relieve prison overcrowding.
It is true, according to 2000 FBI crime statistics, that Kansas' murder-per-capita ranking had gone up. But violent crime across the United States dropped dramatically in the past decade. Kansas is not the exception. There was actually one less murder in Kansas in 2000 than there was in 1996 before the felons were released.
"Our murder rates have dropped, but our ranking has gone up because our rate has not dropped as fast as other states," said Scott Morgan, a Lawrence publisher whose company specializes in books on state rankings and statistics. "There were 169 murders in 2000. In 1996 there were 170. In Kansas, violent crime generally is going down. Through 2000, all crimes had been going down for the whole decade. That hurts the sales of our books. When there's a lot of crime, people are interested and buy more books."