In Missouri, it's all about electability

Campaigning is frenetic, but voters mostly focus on who can unseat Bush

Election 2004

January 31, 2004|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Tending the cash register at the Midway Truck Plaza, which sits on Interstate 70 smack in between St. Louis and Kansas City, is Bob McCormick, who wants to contribute this Tuesday to ending the presidency of George W. Bush.

McCormick thinks he'll vote for Sen. John Kerry. Not that he likes Kerry so much. In fact, he thinks Sen. John Edwards is more energetic and personable.

But McCormick is convinced that Kerry has the best chance to oust the president. Unhappy with Bush for, among other things, taking America into a war over weapons that have not been found, he says flatly:

"Kerry is more electable. He's just got a better chance."

On the heels of two straight victories, Kerry has quickly opened up a commanding lead over his rivals in recent polls here.

Success in Missouri - the richest prize among seven states holding Democratic primaries Tuesday - could strengthen the Massachusetts senator's claim that he can compete with Bush in the South and Midwest, where the president has formidable backing.

A Kerry victory here could also deal major setbacks to Edwards and Wesley K. Clark, who have argued that their ability to win in the South - and in states that border it, such as Missouri - makes them more electable.

Missouri is a bellwether state that will give the candidates a good idea of their national appeal.

Anchored in the nation's heartland, it is in some ways a microcosm of America, with a cosmopolitan city on its eastern border (St. Louis), a city on the western frontier (Kansas City), a southern-leaning country music center in the Ozarks (Branson), pockets of farmland, rural poverty and towns whose fortunes are tied to two of America's mightiest rivers.

Independence, a suburb of Kansas City, was famously the home of President Harry S. Truman, whose flinty individualism still seems an apt reflection of this Midwestern state. Since 1904, with a single exception (Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956), Missouri has voted the way America has in every presidential election. Bush won the state in 2000, and it's seen as a swing state this time.

Kerry seems to have benefited enormously from the momentum he picked up from victories in Iowa and New Hampshire. In about two dozen interviews over the past three days in St. Louis, Kansas City and along flat Interstate 70 in between, most people who intend to vote Tuesday said their top priority is picking someone with the best odds of unseating Bush. And many who are still not certain say they are leaning to Kerry.

Some undecided voters concede that they feel put off by the patrician Kerry's New England roots and Ivy League schooling and feel a closer connection with the folksier Edwards.

Still, a familiar refrain is that a man who can score decisive victories in the first two contests could be just the one to go head-to-head with Bush.

Kerry's two early victories also brought him endorsements from a slew of popular public figures in the state. Voters say the senator seems to be projecting leadership more than his rivals are.

Nancy Hope donated money to Howard Dean last summer. Then, she said, she began watching Edwards on C-SPAN. "I just love his positive attitude, his winning personality and he's cute," said Hope, a 63-year-old retired saleswoman and Democrat from St. Louis.

Hope said she still loves Dean, and "Edwards has such a sense of humor." But it meant a lot to her that her beloved former Democratic senator, Jean Carnahan, endorsed Kerry. Now, Hope is leaning toward Kerry, too.

"He sometimes talks too much and takes so long to answer questions," she said. "But he seems to be the front-runner. And it's the electability factor."

For months, it looked as though Missouri would be an afterthought. Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, who has represented a St. Louis-area district in Congress for 27 years, seemed poised to win the primary in a landslide. Then, after the Iowa caucuses, Gephardt bowed out, and Missouri became a sought-after prize. There are 74 delegates at stake - more than in any of the other states with contests Tuesday.

Kerry, and possibly Edwards, will campaign in Kansas City today, the second visit for each to the state since the New Hampshire primary. Yesterday, Dean traveled to St. Louis to rally supporters.

On the stump, all the Democrats are trying to tap into discontent with Bush - a sentiment expressed in places like the Waffle House in O'Fallon, just west of St. Louis.

LeAnn Dettmer, a waitress. says business is slow. Booths are empty, tips are lousy, and she blames Bush. Three years in office, she complains, and the president has done little to make sure ordinary Americans like her have secure jobs and money in their pockets.

"I just want someone who will take care of us," she says as country music blares from an old jukebox. "Bush said he would turn things around. But we're busting our butts, paying our taxes and not getting a damn thing."

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