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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Missouri voters began weighing in Tuesday on several Missouri primary battles that got as hot as the summer asphalt, including races to be Republican nominees for U.S. Senate and lieutenant governor and a St. Louis contest between two Democratic congressmen now vying for the same seat.

Polls are open Tuesday from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Registered voters can pick a ballot for any political party or if they prefer to stay out of partisan politics can ask for a ballot that merely poses questions about issues, such as a proposed state constitutional amendment related to prayer.

Shawn Kieffer, Republican director of elections for the Kansas City Election Board, had predicted turnout of about 15 percent. But he said based on early numbers, he thinks the final figure may be closer to 10 percent or 12 percent of the 215,000 registered voters in his jurisdiction.

Gary Stoff, Republican director for the St. Louis Board of Elections, said that the polling places were reporting a steady flow of activity, but not heavy. He says city election officials were expecting turnout near the 25 percent expected statewide or above because there are so many hotly contested races in St. Louis.

The top of the ballot features the U.S. Senate race. For Democrats, there is just one choice Sen. Claire McCaskill. Republicans have several choices, including frontrunners John Brunner, Sarah Steelman and Todd Akin. Also on the ballot are primaries for governor, other statewide offices and some legislative seats.

James Baumgartner, 75, a retired state chemist from Jefferson City, voted for Steelman.

“I want to make damn sure that somebody defeats Claire McCaskill, and I think maybe she has that opportunity, because she’s a woman,” he said.

John Bubb, 61, of Fenton, a single software engineer, was passing out pamphlets outside of Chesterfield City Hall in support of Bruner, although he described his support as lukewarm.

“I’m not entirely happy with some of the things he has said in public. I’m concerned he does not state positions clearly. But I will not vote for the other two.”

Noreen McCann, 54, a married mother of six from Wildwood, backed Akin.

“He’s a solid conservative and he’s been there in the trenches. He’s good on life issues, strong on defense. He votes his conscience and I don’t think Todd Akin is for sale. He votes on principle.”

All three Republican Senate candidates have been campaigning by claiming they are the most conservative. All vow to try to repeal President Barack Obama’s health care law. And they all share a similar economic plan centered on less government, including reductions in taxes, spending, debt and regulations. Brunner and Steelman each have run ads questioning whether the other is truly conservative. They’ve also criticized Akin in that regard, though Akin has not fought back with his own negative ads.

Conservative celebrities have gotten involved former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin for Steelman and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee for Akin. And the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has put its considerable finances behind Brunner, who has poured more than $7.5 million into his own campaign. Steelman also has loaned her campaign several hundred thousand dollars.

Big money also has flowed in the Republican lieutenant governor’s primary, where incumbent Peter Kinder is being challenged by state Sen. Brad Lager.

Lager has received a total of around $1.5 million from three sources retired businessman Rex Sinquefield, Herzog Contracting and the Humphreys family, which runs Tamko Building Products in Joplin. David Humphreys led the way in switching loyalties from Kinder to Lager after Kinder acknowledged last year that he had frequently visited an Illinois strip club while serving as a state senator in the 1990s.

Lager’s ads have suggested Kinder is entangled in scandal, also highlighting that he reimbursed the state tens of thousands of dollars after media reports about his frequent hotel stays in St. Louis. A separate committee, whose original source of contributions is not disclosed, also has aided Lager by running Kinder attack ads. Kinder, meanwhile, has accused Lager of obscuring his background by not clearly disclosing that he works for Cerner Corp., which Kinder says has benefited from Obama’s health care law.

In St. Louis, U.S. Reps. William Lacy Clay and Russ Carnahan have appealed to the largely Democratic electorate by casting themselves as the most effective liberal or progressive candidate.

Carnahan chose to run in the 1st District, currently represented by Clay, after Carnahan’s current 3rd District was essentially dismantled during redistricting and merged with neighboring districts. The boundaries were redrawn, and districts condensed, by the Republican-led state Legislature after Missouri lost one of its nine congressional districts as a result of the 2010 census.

Carnahan has accused Clay of selling out to predatory lenders by accepting tens of thousands of dollars in contributions over the past several years from the rent-to-own industry. Clay has defended the purpose of rent-to-own stores for lower-income residents and has accused Carnahan of running an angry campaign. Both candidates repeatedly accused the other of telling a “whopper” when they debated a week before their primary.

Voters will also decide a measure that would expand an existing section of the Missouri Constitution to state that people can pray in public if they do not disturb the peace, and that a prayer is allowed before government meetings. It would state that students cannot be compelled to participate in school assignments or educational presentations violating their religious beliefs.

Supporters contend it reinforces the right to pray and protects students. Opponents argue the measure could cause confusion over what is allowed and is likely to trigger lawsuits.

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material  may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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