The Associated Press
As a child, he walked barefoot through his family's cotton fields. As an adult, he walked the marble halls of Congress.
Kenny Hulshof highlights his contrasting footsteps virtually every chance he gets while on the campaign trail for Missouri governor.
It's the Republican congressman's way of separating himself from Washington. It's also a key reason why Hulshof believes voters should let him walk into the Governor's Mansion.
"Ours was not a political family," Hulshof explains. "Down in the Bootheel, when you say the name Hulshof, you think, `Oh, those are the people that make a living from the land' - and I say that proudly."
For Hulshof, the soil represents solid values - hard work, integrity, faithfulness, honesty.
"Hopefully, people in the state will respect people who stand on principles and values, and that's exactly the kind of governor I will be," Hulshof recently told a crowd of farmers while summing up his standard biographical sketch.
Hulshof is not the only one emphasizing rural roots. His Democratic opponent in the Nov. 4 election, Attorney General Jay Nixon, grew up in the small town of De Soto in Jefferson County. Like Hulshof, Nixon's campaign commercials show him driving - in a truck or sports utility vehicle - through his childhood stomping ground.
The Hulshof family farm is near the Bootheel town of Bertrand, where his father earned a reputation as one of the hardest working men around. It wasn't unusual for Paul Hulshof to be climbing a tree in the dead of night, grasping a chain saw to whack branches hanging over his field so that his pivoting irrigation system wouldn't get knocked off course.
Hulshof calls his father - who never went to college - "the wisest man I ever knew."
But aside from listening to Rush Limbaugh on the radio, Paul Hulshof never was too political.
"You could have offered his dad the office of presidency and he would have said, `I think I'll pass,'" said Randy Brazel, a farmer and seed distributor who is a longtime Hulshof family friend.
As a boy, Kenny Hulshof watched - and helped - his father on the farm, doing everything from cultivating fields to scooping manure out of hog sheds. When his father was terminally ill in August 2002, Hulshof returned to help harvest the corn crop. Although his father and mother have since died, Hulshof still occasionally helps on the farm. The daily operations are hired out.
Those who know Hulshof see a part of his father in him.
"He's not going to be a slacker in any way. He's going to go at it," said Hulshof's cousin, David Hulshof, a Catholic priest in Cape Girardeau.
Kenny Hulshof, however, never earned his living as a farmer.
After graduating in a class of about 65 from Kelly High School, Hulshof turned down a chance to play baseball at a smaller school and instead took his father's advice to accept an academic curator's scholarship at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Then he went to law school at the University of Mississippi, thinking he would focus on agricultural law. Instead, Hulshof got hooked by the courtroom theatrics in a freshman trial advocacy course and decided to go into criminal law.
He got a job as a public defender, then an assistant prosecutor in Cape Girardeau County. One of his courtroom adversaries recommended him for a job in 1989 in Republican Attorney General Bill Webster's office, where Hulshof specialized in prosecuting high-profile murder cases.
Hulshof narrowly lost when the Boone County Republican Committee picked a nominee for a 1992 special election for local prosecutor.
When Nixon won election as attorney general in 1992, Hulshof remained on staff. In fact, Hulshof not only worked for Nixon, he played basketball with him during lunch breaks and even in the Show-Me State Games.
After political science professor Rick Hardy unexpectedly dropped out of a 1994 congressional race, the Republican 9th District Congressional Committee picked Hulshof as the replacement candidate.
Hulshof signed Newt Gringrich's "Contract with America" and got 45 percent of the vote in what was a good Republican year nationally while losing to longtime Democratic Rep. Harold Volkmer. The Saturday before Election Day, Hulshof married Renee Howell, whom he had met several years earlier while she worked in the attorney general's press office.
Nixon allowed Hulshof to take vacation, then an unpaid leave of absence during the campaign and welcomed him back to the attorney general's office - a move that didn't go over well with some Democrats.
When Hulshof geared up for a second run against Volkmer, however, Nixon decided it was time for him to go. Hulshof resigned from the attorney general's office at the end of 1995.
This time, he was better equipped for a congressional campaign - organizationally and intellectually.
"I admit to you I was talking points deep" in 1994, Hulshof said. "What I learned was that if I am going to ask someone for their vote, I owe it to them to be well-versed in the issues they care about."
Hulshof squeaked out a 168-vote victory in the Republican primary and defeated Volkmer with 49 percent of the vote in a four-way 1996 general election. He won re-election five times.
In Congress, Hulshof bucked the Republican establishment by voting as a member of the House Ethics Committee to admonish then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Hulshof subsequently was removed from the committee - a fact he touts as a badge of honor when talking about his integrity and independence on the campaign trail.
Democrats note Hulshof has voted with Republican President Bush about 90 percent of the time from 2001 to 2007, though that percentage was lower last year.
In the Republican gubernatorial primary, State Treasurer Sarah Steelman criticized Hulshof for voting for what she derided as wasteful spending earmarks - tagging him as part of the problem with Washington. It's a criticism that Nixon has tried to carry on.
Hulshof has outlined policy proposals on health care, higher education, economic development and ethics reforms. He generally praises Republican Gov. Matt Blunt, who announced in January that he would not seek re-election, for moving the state in the right direction and casts Nixon as wanting to return to the old ways.
But the policies are only part of his campaign pitch. The other part is his humble background.
"I think if the people in the state knew Kenny Hulshof the way I know Kenny Hulshof, they would see beyond the political process and think he has the chance to be the breath of fresh air of doing what's right because it's the right thing to do," said Lanie Black, a former state lawmaker from the Bootheel who serves as Hulshof's campaign treasurer.
As a gradeschooler, Hulshof really did walk barefoot through his family's cotton while swinging a hoe at weeds.
"It was hot and it was tedious but it had to get done. That's where I learned the importance of working hard," Hulshof said.