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Missouri a Midwest ‘must win’

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COLUMBIA, Mo. | As Missouri goes, so goes the nation.

It's an easy catchphrase for the ever-battleground Show Me State, but it has never rung more true than this anything-goes election cycle.

From Lee's Summit - where the Republican ticket stumped Monday, to rural Dixon, where a "Veterans for Obama" button draws both cheers and sneers - Missourians are being inundated with reminders their votes matter more than ever.

Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama has come through Missouri six times since June, and his vice-presidential running mate will make two stops there Tuesday.

Republicans captured the state by more than seven percentage points in 2004, but there are hopeful signs for Democrats who are pushing the economy as the top issue.

The state is home to many key demographics - boasting high numbers of union members, farmers, evangelicals and veterans - but also suffering from record job losses as auto plants and other factories shut down. Its big cities have large black populations; the outer suburbs trend white.

Missouri voters have backed the winner in the last 10 presidential elections, and its 11 electoral votes would be a big boost to either candidate in the neck-and-neck race.

Team Obama has 40 offices statewide, many in rural areas to follow the successful strategy of Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, who defeated a Republican incumbent in 2006. A McCain spokesman did not respond to a request for number of offices or a tally of visits.

Democrats volunteering in the Obama office in Columbia, home to the University of Missouri, said they are pleased with the resources the campaign has poured into the state.

"It was basically ignored by Kerry," said Kathleen Fitzgerald, a sociology professor at Columbia College, who has noticed a shift in the electorate since she volunteered for Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry in 2004.

"There seems to be a lot more excitement among young people," she said. "It would be nice if we swung. I don't think he'll win the state, but it will be close."

But Sen. John McCain holds a 7-point lead, according to a Real Clear Politics average of Missouri polls.

"This state, we must win, and we will win," the Arizona senator said Monday while campaigning with his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

Mr. Obama carved out a narrow Super Tuesday victory in Missouri during the Democratic primary battle with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, thanks in part to a high turnout of black voters in the St. Louis area. One of his first general election stops was to Cape Girardeau, the hometown of conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh.

Brenna Blazis, 17, won't be old enough to vote Nov. 4. But the Rock Bridge High senior spends 40 hours a week interning in the Columbia office for the Obama campaign - making phone calls, getting people registered and educating voters about why she thinks the Illinois senator should be president.

"For the last eight years, we've had nothing but failed policies, and that's basically all I can remember," she said.

One thing that's surprised Miss Blazis is how receptive Republicans have been to Team Obama's message. She says it's because people are fed up with President Bush.

Another thing giving her hope is that Mr. Bush won Boone County by 158 votes in 2004. "On some days I've registered more than 100 new voters," she said.

On a recent Wednesday evening, more than two dozen volunteers streamed into the office - which has housed Democratic campaigns for years - to participate in a phone bank.

One of the 10 staffers paid by the campaign asked the volunteers to say why they were there.

"I can't take four more years," said one middle-aged woman, doing political volunteering for the first time.

"I want the government to stop depressing me. My wife tells me we have to move to Canada if McCain wins," a male volunteer said.

The walls are decorated with Obama drawings and slogans ("Yes we can!"), along with precinct maps. But they also include talking points for volunteers to use to aid statewide candidates.

"McCain/Hulshof oppose choice ... contraception ... children's health," one sign declares, tying Mr. McCain to the Republican gubernatorial candidate Rep. Kenny Hulshof.

Also on display was a T-shirt bearing Mr. McCain's image and the Oscar-winning film title he often joked about, "No Country for Old Men."

The phone bankers were getting encouraging signs when dialing their list of Democrats.

"That's good to hear," one caller told the voter on the other line. "We were wondering if you were willing to help. Please spread the word to anyone you know about why you're voting for Senator Obama."

Missouri also is a prime target for the viral e-mail smears that have been floating around the Internet for more than a year.

A Kansas City retiree who tends to vote Republican says he receives three to four nasty messages about Mr. Obama each day - from e-mails that question his faith and patriotism to debunked claims about his tax plan.

Some of the Obama supporters think the e-mails give voters an excuse to be racist.

"Race is an issue, and a whole lot of white Americans don't admit to that," Ms. Fitzgerald said.

Some voters worry about the Obama stance on guns, one reason the Columbia office offers guidance on the Second Amendment.

The "guns" flier on display for voters to peruse is headlined with an Obama quote: "I believe the Constitution confers an individual right to bear arms."

It notes he was endorsed by the American Hunters and Shooters Association and that he will "support the rights and traditions of sportsmen."

"Obama's words and his actions are clear. He will protect your gun rights, he supports the individual right to bear arms, and he will stand against the confiscation of legally acquired firearms," the flier concludes.

Several voters who had been leaning toward Mr. Obama said they have been enchanted by Mrs. Palin.

"If anything, Palin is the rock star," said Cameron Dorr, a 29-year-old massage therapist from Columbia. "I'm sure there are a lot of people today thinking she should be the lead on the ticket."

Mr. Dorr said he will "probably" vote for Mr. Obama because Mr. Bush "was such a mistake," but added, "It's not done yet."

But some die-hard Republicans were looking at the Democratic ticket for its vice president. Several voters said they like Mr. Biden, who is to campaign in Columbia and St. Louis on Tuesday.

The Obama camp sent out surrogates to highlight the "Bush-McCain" economic plan in advance of the Republican visit to the western part of the state Monday. They also have made a big "Republicans for Obama" push with former Republican Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa leading the group.

About the Author

Christina Bellantoni

Christina Bellantoni is a White House correspondent for The Washington Times in Washington, D.C., a post she took after covering the 2008 Democratic presidential campaigns. She has been with The Times since 2003, covering state and Congressional politics before moving to national political beat for the 2008 campaign. Bellantoni, a San Jose native, graduated from UC Berkeley with ...

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