Earlier this morning, I had an opportunity to speak to one of the next generation of Republicans on the national stage, Governor Matt Blunt of Missouri.  Governor Blunt recently gained attention for his sharp criticisms of statements from Missouri prosecutors who had joined an Obama Truth Squad, and who had strongly implied that they would use their power to prosecute critics of Barack Obama.  Two weeks ago, Blunt compared these tactics to the execrable Sedition Acts and told Obama to “grow up” — and he was in the same frame of mind when I spoke to him this morning.

Some have questioned whether Republicans overreacted to the high-profile inclusion of prosecutors and a sheriff to the Obama Truth Squad in Missouri, with Democrats saying that they never said they would prosecute people.  However, the original KMOV report said they would look for violations of Missouri ethics laws, which certainly implies some sort of legal action against critics:

Blunt pointed out in the interview that KMOV has stood by its initial report.  “No one wants to be the target of a prosecutor,” Blunt told me.  Just the mention of that provides a “chilling effect” to free political speech, and required a strong response.  At best, Blunt said, the Obama Truth Squad was “extremely careless with their language,” and at worst attempted to look like a “police squad”.

I asked him about the propriety of prosecutors being on truth squads at all, and Blunt said he didn’t have a problem with it, as long as they explicitly separated that from their regular work.  Everyone, he said, should be able to participate in the political system.  But when District Attorneys and Sheriffs appear to threaten legal action against critics of one particular candidate, that could give a strong impression of bias that would taint the rest of their work.  Prosecutors are expected to be more than advocates in their work — they represent The People, not just The Party, and have extraordinary responsibilities to go with their extraordinary powers.  When a prosecutor suggests that criticisms might violate the law, that is “implicit intimidation” of critics.  “It reeks of the Sedition Acts,” Blunt told me, echoing his September 29th statement.

Blunt also thinks that this shows a “predisposition to legal action” on the part of Obama.  In his statement last month, Blunt noted that bloggers often write untrue accusations against him.  He mostly ignores them, and refutes them when he thinks it’s necessary.  Obama could do the same simply by refuting the criticism, using more speech as a corrective to bad speech, rather than attempt to intimidate critics into silence.

I asked Blunt about the accusations of hate speech in Florida from a McCain speaker referring to “Barack Hussein Obama”.  Blunt was, well, blunt in his reaction to this.  “The idea that using a legal middle name is hate speech is absurd,” he replied.

Blunt gave his assessment of the presidential race in Missouri, which has tightened to a small lead for McCain.  The past two weeks have been “brutal,” Blunt acknowledged, but thinks the polls will swing back shortly when people digest the financial crisis better.  He expects McCain to carry Missouri in November without too much trouble.

With the crisis, many states have found themselves in trouble.  California, for instance, needs a $7 billion loan to make payroll, and its estimated $15 billion deficit will undoubtedly skyrocket as revenues decline.  Missouri, though, doesn’t have those problems.  I asked Blunt why, and he said, “By and large, states are in trouble because they spent too much money.”  During his term, Blunt cut spending, lowered taxes and promoted economic growth, reformed workers-comp laws, and built an environment for business so attractive that Missouri now leads the nation in manufacturing.  Had other states shown the same discipline and put money aside as Missouri did, they wouldn’t need short-term credit at all and would be able to ride out the storm.  Common-sense governing put Missouri in a position of strength.

Blunt, though, will not return for a second term.  He decided not to run for re-election this year, despite all of his success.  I asked him if he would return to the governor’s office at some time, and Blunt didn’t rule it out.  He told me that government benefits when the people who run it cycle back into the private sector on a regular basis to experience the effects of their decisions.  At 38, Blunt has many years to make that cycle on an ongoing basis, and perhaps make himself into a gold-plated prospect for the White House in the future.