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ST. LOUIS • Sounding unmistakably like a candidate for governor, Democratic Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster took Republican legislators to task Saturday on a range of issues including Medicaid expansion, the minimum wage and gay rights.

“Missourians should never be denied a place to live or a job simply because they are gay,” Koster told about 500 attendees at the Missouri Democratic Party’s annual Jefferson-Jackson Dinner.

The keynote speaker, U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., meanwhile, gave a full-throated defense of the federal Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

“What this president did was to challenge America to pick up an issue started by none other than Harry Truman,” Durbin said in reference to President Barack Obama’s signature health care law. That law remains under fire from Republicans nationwide and has seen some Democrats back away from it.

“I’m not backing off, I’m not apologizing,” Durbin said. “I am proud of that vote for the Affordable Care Act.”

The event, at the Renaissance Grand Hotel in downtown St. Louis, also bestowed a lifetime achievement award to former U.S. Sen. Jean Carnahan, D-Mo.

“I believe it was Mark Twain who said it’s good to be remembered and even better to be remembered well,” Carnahan told the gathering.

Though the state’s next gubernatorial election isn’t until 2016, Koster has so far cleared the field of any challenges from his own party with his early confirmation that he’s running.

He was introduced at Saturday’s event by state Democratic Party Chairman Roy Temple as “the next governor of Missouri” — a notable endorsement at an official party function, since any Democratic primary challengers still have about two years to jump in.

Koster, who has been in the news lately for suggesting Missouri could sidestep controversy over the source of its execution drugs by making its own, didn’t mention that issue at all in his speech. Instead, he focused on the kinds of issues more likely to appeal to Democratic voters, under a theme of “giving voice to the voiceless.”

He slammed the Republican majority in the state Legislature for blocking the expansion of Medicaid, the government health insurance program for the poor. That decision affects about 300,000 uninsured low-income Missourians who would have been covered by the federally funded program.

The expansion of the program at the state level is a key feature of Obamacare, and Missouri is one of several Republican-controlled states that have refused, over Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon’s objections. Koster called it “a battle that we will unquestionably win in this state; the only question is when.”

He also lauded Democrats in Jefferson City for stopping an “ugly” voter ID measure sought by Republicans that he said was designed to hamper certain groups of people from voting.

Nixon is prevented by term limits from seeking a third term as governor in 2016. He didn’t attend Saturday’s event and sent his regrets, organizers said from the podium. They didn’t give an explanation for his absence.

U.S. Sen Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., also wasn’t at the event, but addressed the gathering via recorded video. In it, she called Durbin “the conscience of our party in the Senate.”

Durbin’s speech focused primarily on national partisan fights over Obamacare and immigration. He also brought up the pending nomination of former Missouri Supreme Court Justice Ronnie L. White to Missouri’s Eastern District.

White had been nominated to the federal bench under President Bill Clinton but was denied the seat after then-Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., opposed it, citing White’s opposition to the death penalty.

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