A Balancing Act in the Upper South

By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 9, 2006

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- They call this city the buckle of the Bible Belt.

Tucked in southwest Missouri, near Arkansas and Oklahoma, Springfield is home to 200 churches and five Christian colleges, including Jerry Falwell's alma mater, Baptist Bible. The Assemblies of God, a fast-growing force in the Pentecostal movement, is headquartered here. Local businesses include Divinely Inspired Cleaning, Integrity Imports and Grace Health Services.

Republicans in Springfield outnumber Democrats by a 2-to-1 margin. But one particular Democrat, U.S. Senate candidate Claire McCaskill, has been here 25 times since March. Her first two campaign ads ran only in the Springfield market. She spent primary night at the local party headquarters.

McCaskill thinks her close race against incumbent Jim Talent (R) will hinge on winning votes in places such as Springfield, where Democrats in recent years had virtually given up trying to break the GOP's lock on culturally conservative voters.

Across the upper South, from the Ozark hills to the Virginia Beach suburbs, Democratic candidates in House and Senate races are betting that they can overcome the unpopularity of their party affiliation by shrewdly combining biography, personal style and artful positioning on divisive social issues.

The theory is that Democratic positions on such issues as the economy and education are well-suited to many tradition-minded Southern voters -- if these voters can be reassured on cultural values.

"It's time that we start reading the Bible instead of knocking people over the head with it," McCaskill told a Springfield crowd last month.

Missouri is an ideal laboratory to see if the experiment can work. For decades, the Democratic formula for winning the Show-Me State was simple: Win big in the urban hubs of St. Louis and Kansas City. But that approach only works by not losing big in the rest of the state.

McCaskill, the state auditor and a former prosecutor, learned that the hard way. In 2004, she lost the race for governor to Matt Blunt, the son of House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R). She campaigned hard in the cities but was barely seen in Springfield, which repaid her in kind with 37 percent of the vote.

"If I want to represent all of the state, I darn better get to speak to everybody in the state," McCaskill, 53, told a crowd here last month.

That sentiment is being expressed in four other upper South states: Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina. In all these places, Democrats are testing different mixes of candidates, messages and outreach methods. Candidates do not talk about abortion unless they oppose it -- and many ardently do. They phone into Christian talk radio shows to challenge their critics. Their campaign Web sites show them in hunting garb and list what church service they attend.

McCaskill's campaign literature depicts her as a folksy next-door neighbor, drinking tea with other women at a kitchen table and wearing a denim jacket as she talks to farmers. She announced her candidacy in front of the family feed mill in Houston, a small town east of Springfield. In one ad, called "Family Style," McCaskill introduces her mom, Betty Anne, and recalls of her parents, "They couldn't give us much, but we got what we needed."

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