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Archive for Monday, October 30, 2006

GOP moderates face Kline dilemma

October 30, 2006

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— For the past decade in Kansas politics, Phill Kline has represented a problem for moderate Republicans, because they haven't been able to get a Kline they can accept without voting for a Kline they dislike.

Their problem is especially acute this year, as Kline, a conservative Republican, seeks a second term as attorney general, needing votes from the moderate GOP wing, independents and other swing voters.

His record in office and on the campaign trail has been a mix of policies, positions and statements attracting support and alienating the very groups he needs to win over.

Kline put moderates in an even more uncomfortable spot with his last two television ads, focusing on allegations of sexual harassment in two dismissed lawsuits against Democratic challenger Paul Morrison, the Johnson County district attorney. The claims came from a fired employee who found no witnesses to corroborate her story and didn't receive any damages at the close of her litigation - which was 13 years ago.

Kline entered this year's race with a reputation for no-holds-barred campaigning. That stems from moderates' memories of a contentious and successful run against then-Sen. David Adkins in the 2002 GOP primary for attorney general, as well as Democrats' bad memories from Kline's equally contentious but unsuccessful race against U.S. Rep. Dennis Moore in 2000.

Now, moderate Republicans can't keep state government's second most important elective office in GOP hands unless they reward a candidate who's run the roughest campaign Kansas has seen in at least a generation. It raises a natural question: Will a Kline victory encourage more of the same?

"As far as moderate Republicans, I do not think they approve of this kind of campaigning," said Sen. Dwayne Umbarger, R-Thayer, chairman of his chamber's powerful budget committee. "I don't think this belonged anywhere in this political process."

Pushed by attacks

Kline at first justified raising the old, unproven allegations against Morrison by saying Morrison had claimed his 18 years as district attorney had not seen a whiff of scandal. Kline also said he was pushed into it by Morrison's relentless attacks on him, which Kline sees as unfair.

"He's been running a negative campaign ever since he started, and that is his effort to try to avoid the facts," Kline said after their last debate.

Morrison, in fact, has given Kline no quarter in the campaign.

One television spot attacked the Republican incumbent for his pursuit of medical records, accusing him of invading patients' privacy, without saying the only records Kline wanted belonged to 90 patients at two abortion clinics.

In another spot criticizing the hiring of Bryan Brown to lead Kline's consumer protection division, it mentions Brown's 12 prior arrests - without noting that they occurred in the 1980s and 1990s and were associated with anti-abortion protests.

But Morrison must give moderate Republicans and GOP-leaning independents reasons to oust an incumbent.

Moderates can't keep the attorney general who talks of zero tolerance for crime without keeping the one who hired his nephew to be a driver while the nephew was on probation for marijuana possession.

If they don't want the Kline who hired Brown away from the conservative Center for Law & Policy of the American Family Association in Tupelo, Miss., they have to jettison the Kline who championed tougher sentences for sex crimes against children.

The Kline whose work on keeping assets of the former Health Midwest nonprofit hospital system in Kansas may have impressed some moderates in 2003 also is the Kline who angered them by seeking the abortion clinics' records.

He speaks with passion about faith, God's love and reconciling with a once-estranged father, but he's also the candidate who wrote the August memo outlining how his campaign staff could fully exploit his support among churchgoers, making sure that pastors brought "money people" to fundraising events.

The Kline who boasts of bipartisan support from 89 of the state's 104 county sheriffs is the same Kline known in the mid-1990s as a Kansas House member who attacked Bill Graves, a popular governor from the moderate wing of his own party.

Actor in ads

And finally, there's Kline the employer, who says he simply gave his nephew with past legal troubles a second chance in 2003. The same person says the claims from Morrison's accuser, made in 1991, are relevant to judging Morrison's character 15 years later, despite the dismissal of her two federal lawsuits and a complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The Kline who questions whether Morrison's attacks are misleading is the one whose first ad on the sexual harassment allegations featured an actor portraying Morrison, reading words his accuser attributed to him. The ad didn't tell viewers it was a dramatization, something Bob Beatty, a Washburn University political scientist, called "disturbing."

"When you bring on paid actors or impersonators to impersonate your opponent, you're getting close to trying to deceive the viewers," Beatty said. "It is probably something the Legislature needs to talk about."

Morrison's task has been to remind moderate Republicans and GOP-leaning independents that they've had serious qualms about Kline, whatever qualities or positions they like.

With his latest television ads, Kline has been doing that job himself.

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