2 Rivals Promise Increase in Jobs; Nixon; Points to Below-Average Unemployment, Plans to Keep Recruiting Targeted Industries.; Spence; Focuses on Discouraged Workers, Says Government Needs to Get out of the Way; ELECTIONS 2012 - Missouri Governor

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JEFFERSON CITY - Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon and his Republican challenger, Dave Spence, sound like they're referring to different states when they talk about Missouri's economy.

Nixon: Missouri "led the Midwest" in the number of jobs added in August. The state's unemployment rate - 7.2 percent - has been below the national average for 36 months.

Spence: Missouri's economy ranked "worst in our region" in 2011. More than 106,000 Missourians have quit looking for work since Nixon took office.

Jobs are a top issue for voters, so both gubernatorial candidates have put it front and center in their campaigns. Though neither candidate has offered many new ideas, their proposals for revving up the economy offer some vivid contrasts, as do the statistics they use to make their cases.

Spence, who received the endorsement of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce & Industry, champions the chamber's position that businesses will move here and hire more workers if the state passes laws making it harder for employers to be sued.

The Republican nominee's jobs package also includes pushing back against federal regulations and reducing labor unions' clout by barring union fees as a condition of employment.

Nixon would stick with his priorities of recruiting targeted industries such as auto plants, increasing the state's exports and holding the line on taxes.

Other Nixon initiatives focus on worker training. He has expanded community college scholarships under the A-plus program and launched fast-track degree programs for high-demand fields, such as health care. Nixon also started a jobs program for returning veterans.

Apart from their proposals, both men say experience matters.

Nixon, the state's attorney general for 16 years before becoming governor, said he had shown he can work across party lines to get things done with the Republican-controlled Legislature.

His favorite example: Nixon called a special legislative session in 2009 to pass auto manufacturing incentives, which have helped lure Ford and General Motors investments to Missouri.

"There may be some chirping here and there, but we're getting to the finish line," Nixon said in a recent session with the Post- Dispatch editorial board.

Spence, who sold his St. Louis plastics business in 2010, contends his background running a business for 26 years makes him better prepared to help businesses grow. He said he would use common sense to get the bureaucracy out of the way. For example, he sees no reason for surprise tax audits.

He promises to be a hands-on manager of economic development, blaming Nixon for the botched Mamtek deal in Moberly.

"When you're 50th in the country or even 48th, your business plan is not working," Spence said.

Whether you believe Missouri's economy is sinking or rebounding "depends on who you ask and what data you use," said David Mitchell, director of the Bureau of Economic Research at Missouri State University in Springfield.

Nixon took office in January 2009, shortly after the national downturn hit. The state's unemployment reached a high of 9.7 percent that August. But ever since then, Missouri's rate has been below the national rate, as Nixon likes to point out.

Even so, as Spence notes, 106,000 people have left the state's work force since January 2009, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. If all those people were still counted as seeking jobs, Missouri's unemployment rate would be 9.9 percent, not 7.2 percent, Mitchell estimates.

Meanwhile, Spence's assertion that Missouri trails the region relies on a different measurement: the gross domestic product, which estimates goods and services produced. Missouri's GDP has been stagnant, ranking 43rd nationally in 2011.

But "that's not a recent trend," Mitchell said. "Jay Nixon's not really responsible for it, and Dave Spence probably can't fix it. …