Abilene Trying to persuade 100 or so fellow Republicans to nominate him for insurance commissioner in Tuesday's primary, Eric Carter calls to the back of the room and asks his 11-year-old son where the boy's new football was manufactured.
After a beat, the boy answers, "China."
Carter then suggests his son's birthday present and other products are made overseas because frivolous lawsuits against businesses plague the American legal system - and that he can do something about it if elected.
The folksy moment was in keeping with a campaign that emphasizes yard signs and forums like the one at Abilene senior center. But it belied Carter's aggressive effort to oust incumbent Sandy Praeger, whom he has accused of not being a real Republican.
Praeger's mediums of choice have been television and billboards. She has responded to Carter with an TV ad depicting him as a frequent luncheon companion for lobbyists and as a bobble-headed carpetbagger for moving to Kansas 10 years ago.
There's a reason for the harsh tone. Many Republicans think Praeger stands a good chance of becoming the first commissioner to lose a primary.
"Based on yard signs, I'd say yes. Based on television, I'd say no," said House Speaker Doug Mays, R-Topeka. "This one is going to be a barn burner."
Voters first elected Praeger the state's insurance regulator in 2002, after she had served 12 years in the Legislature. Carter, an Overland Park attorney, has served in the House since 2003.
It's not just their campaigning styles that contrast.
At 61, Praeger was born just before the post-World War II baby boom. She calls herself a moderate; some Republicans label her a liberal. Carter is 34, part of the conservative movement that's come to dominate the Kansas GOP over the past decade.
"I don't think one voter in 10 is going to worry about the issues," said Burdett Loomis, a University of Kansas political scientist who served on Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius' staff. "I think they will vote against Praeger because she is not a conservative Republican in any way, shape or form."
The primary winner will face Rep. Bonnie Sharp, D-Kansas City, who has no primary opponent, in the Nov. 7 general election, as well as Libertarian Patrick Wilbur, of Lawrence.
Praeger raised nearly $304,000 for her campaign through last week. Half that - about $155,000 - paid for television ads.
Carter raised nearly $181,000, enough to make the race competitive. However, his biggest expense was yard signs, which cost him about $23,000.
Praeger repeatedly says she has brought a balanced approach to regulating the industry, protecting consumers while creating a climate that has attracted 100 new companies to Kansas.
Election 2006 - Kansas races
More on the 2006 Elections in Kansas
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- 6News video: Candidate speaks at university forum (08-30-06)
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- 6News video: Snag-free night for primaries (08-02-06)
- 6News video: County puts new voting machines to test (08-01-06)
- 6News video: Praeger holds up over opponent (08-01-06)
- Low turnout prompts call for new primary date (08-31-06)
- Publisher blasts candidate for illegally stuffing newspapers (08-04-06)
- Election hailed as pro-evolution (08-03-06)
- New voting machines perform well on first test (08-03-06)
- Barnett wins GOP bid to take on Sebelius (08-02-06)
- Voter turnout among lowest in memory (08-02-06)
- Eudora takes plunge on pool (08-02-06)
- Praeger prevails in 'negative' contest (08-02-06)
- Primary election results
- See how the voting went in select races
- Campaign finance reports
- Statewide office
- Board of Education
- Election 2006 - Kansas races
"If it's about insurance issues, I don't know why I have an opponent," Praeger said during an interview. "I look at my record of service these past four years, and there's nothing to find fault with, in my humble opinion."
Joe Hart, a Pittsburg insurance agent, said he was surprised initially that Praeger had a primary opponent. He considers her a good listener, and he has no complaints with how she has balanced consumer interests with the industry's needs.
"I think she's done a good job for us," Hart said. "I'd like to see her serve another term."
Carter contends there isn't enough market competition, especially among health insurers, and that rising premiums are testimony to that. Also, he said, most of the companies new to Kansas are writing life or property and casualty policies rather than health coverage.
In Abilene, he asked audience members to raise their hands if they were happy with what they were paying for health insurance, eliciting chuckles because no one was.
Carter contends the state could do more to prevent exorbitant damage awards in lawsuits. For example, he said, Kansas is too liberal about who can testify as an expert witness at a trial.
He also carries with him copies of a July 2004 Lawrence Journal-World story headlined, "Praeger endorses Kerry's health care plan." Praeger said she actually favored one element in 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry's plan, similar to an idea President Bush later incorporated in a proposal.
There's also Praeger's appearances with Sebelius across the state late in 2004, touting a doomed legislative proposal to raise tobacco taxes $50 million a year to fund health initiatives.
"Now she's trying to pretend like this never happened," Carter said.
"You really can't find an issue that differentiates Republicans from Democrats where she's not on the side of the Democrats," he said.
To blunt that, Praeger campaign stalwarts include such GOP luminaries as Nancy Kassebaum Baker and Bob Dole, and one TV ad pictured her with President Bush.
In a campaign update Thursday, former Attorney General Bob Stephan called Praeger "the true Republican," adding, "Please don't fall prey to Mr. Carter's ruthless, misinformed agenda."
However, Carter's criticism could resonate in the primary, where conservatives' fortunes are boosted by a well-organized and energized base that turns out more voters than moderates.
In Ottawa, agent Bruce Osladil contributed $100 to Carter's campaign, even though he acknowledges he has no complaints with Praeger.
Carter stopped by his office and talked to him, and Osladil liked the candidate's demeanor. Also, he liked Carter's 100 percent rating as a House member from the National Federation of Independent Business, a group to which Osladil belongs.
"I knew she was a liberal when she was over in the Statehouse before," Osladil said. "I'm a conservative. I'm going to go conservative when I can on things."