The debates at the Missouri Press Association’s annual meeting Friday in Columbia drew a full house, hundreds of people and more than two fistfuls of media representatives. The debates were between the three candidates for governor and the three candidates for the U.S. Senate.

While much of the ground on major issues had been plowed before, insights were given to the candidates’ positions on some of the lesser public policy matters that are of concern to Missourians.

Listening to the candidates for governor, incumbent Democrat Jay Nixon, and challengers Republican Dave Spence and Libertarian Jim Higgins, there is no question that Nixon, the political pro, knows the state better than the other two. He should after serving in the state Senate, as attorney general, and with nearly four years as governor. Spence is a fast learner and is getting to know the state well in his campaign travels. Higgins, who has no chance to win, simply isn’t up to date on some state issues.

Had Spence served in a higher state office before, he would be better equipped as a candidate for governor. He comes from the business world and believes government can be run as a business. There are some aspects of government that can be operated like a business, but overall it’s a different world.

We remember well on the local level what businessman Hugh McCane, former presiding commissioner of Franklin County, said after a few years in the elected position. “I went to the courthouse thinking you could run the county like a business. I found it can’t be done — too many state mandates, regulations, outside political pressures, the relationship with other elected officials you can’t control, lack of funding for basic needs, and other problems that just can’t be solved, usually because we don’t have the money.”

Now we know running a county isn’t on the same level as operating state government, but many of the forces and issues have a relationship. Spence did well in the debate but his lack of experience in a public office is a weak suit. Nixon is adept at dancing around in providing answers, which he has because of his vast experience. But his experience makes him taller compared to Spence. Nixon also has a record in government that overall is positive. Down deep he probably is as conservative on some issues as Spence. The Libertarian candidate is solid on that party’s platform, the main pillar being less government and more freedoms for people.

Spence, who isn’t that well known, was forceful on his convictions and believes Missouri can do better with stronger leadership. He said if Nixon would be in the business world he would be fired. Nixon points to progress being made on most fronts, the state’s strong fiscal position, advances in the creation of jobs, and he is a strong advocate on new taxes that the people should decide. There may come a time when a businessman without government experience may be elected governor.

The words we liked the best that were said during the debate between incumbent Democrat U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, and challengers  Republican Rep. Todd Akin and Libertarian Jonathan Dine were in answer to a question posed by this journalist as to whether they agreed with our policies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sen. McCaskill said she disagreed with the money we are spending on infrastructure projects in those countries. She said that money should be spent on our needs in this country such as a new bridge over the Missouri River at Washington.

The three Senate candidates engaged in a spirited debate, with both McCaskill and Akin having to defend their records when Dine attacked them. The race really is between McCaskill and Akin. A member of the U.S. House and representing the St. Louis County area, Akin was the most emotional while McCaskill was more calm in saying she is in the middle of the road on issues. Akin said McCaskill has voted with President Obama on most issues and “it takes guts” to say you are a middle of the roader.

The earlier words Akin said about rape, pregnancy and abortion that caused a national political storm came up early during the debate. Akin apologized for what he said in a television interview. Akin said the senate race isn’t about talk but about “two visions of what America is about.” McCaskill said even though he apologized for his comments they say a lot about how he views things. She also said Akin is on the fringe while she emphasized she is to the center on issues. They sparred over their voting records and their positions on issues, most of which was not new.

We asked a question concerning the U.S. Postal Service’s plan to close rural post offices, perhaps doing away with Saturday deliveries and going into competition with private businesses such as newspapers in delivering preprinted ad inserts under a lower rate structure. The candidates didn’t seem to know much about the latter. McCaskill stressed the importance of rural post offices to a community, opposed eliminating Saturday deliveries and was critical of prepaying pension funds for postal workers. The other two candidates didn’t express much concern about the issues with the post office, and it was obvious they don’t understand much of what is going on with post offices.

Libertarian Dine, who favors gay marriage, legal marijuana and a balanced budget, closed out his remarks by pledging to keep “Republicans out of your bedroom and Democrats out of your wallets.”