By Jonathan Weisman and Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 31, 2008
UNION, Mo., July 30 -- Sen. Barack Obama campaigned through the conservative heart of rural Missouri on Wednesday, determined to prove that a Democrat can capture this bellwether state by winning over voters in its far-flung small towns as well as in its urban centers.
With a town hall meeting and rally in Springfield, another in Rolla, a stop in Lebanon, and a rainy barbecue here, Obama is trying to mimic Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill's winning game plan from 2006 and get beyond more traditional strategies that left Vice President Al Gore and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) narrow losers in the Show-Me State. Democrats have traditionally counted on huge margins in St. Louis and Kansas City to counter GOP strength in the rest of the state, and it hasn't worked.
"We are going to be fighting for every vote here in Missouri," Obama told an audience in Rolla. "Don't let the other side scare you from what you know in your gut. You know in your gut we have to bring about change."
The odds may be against him. Public polling has given Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) a consistent but narrow lead statewide. But the Obama campaign is making a run at it, with 24 offices in rural Missouri and 150 paid staff members, an unprecedented total that is triple the number Kerry deployed.
"It's the difference between winning and losing," said McCaskill, who squeaked past Republican Jim Talent with 49.6 percent of the vote in 2006. "People all over the state need to have a sense that a candidate cares about them, and if you don't bother to show up in rural Missouri, if you don't bother to ask for people's votes all over the state, then you're not going to win statewide in Missouri."
Republicans are skeptical, not just of the strategy but also of the depths of the on-the-ground campaigning that Obama supporters say is already underway.
"Southwest Missourians are much more focused on substance at the end of the day than style," said House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), whose district hosted Obama all day Wednesday. "No question he has style. He gives a great speech. But there's a reason Missouri has been called for years the Show-Me State."
To hand out tickets for events Wednesday, Obama volunteers in Nixa had to set up a table outside what is supposed to be a campaign office, because no lease has been signed. Chad Jackson of Heartland Realty in Nixa said he thinks the Obama campaign intends to open the office eventually, but it isn't there yet, despite the billing. "We just need the signature," he said. "Call back Thursday or Friday, and I should give you a more definitive answer."
Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.) hinted at the problems Obama still might face here when she suggested that he "has some making up to do" with small-town America after his comments about "bitter" Americans clinging to guns and religion. "What rural Missourians don't like is a candidate who dismisses whole communities out of hand," she said.
But Obama supporters say the effort here is real and the enthusiasm is already there. About 2,000 Missourians stood in 90-degree heat to claim the 1,400 tickets available for the candidate's appearance at Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, a town where McCaskill told a sweaty crowd "a lot of people in this state would think nobody would show up . . . for Barack Obama."
To Obama and McCaskill, victory in November is a numbers game. Kerry took 46 percent of the vote in Missouri in 2004, but in the three counties Obama campaigned in, Greene, Franklin and Phelps, he won 37 percent, 41 percent and 36 percent, respectively. McCaskill didn't win them, either, but her 43 percent average was enough.
"North of 40 would do it" for Obama, McCaskill predicted.
Blunt said McCaskill virtually lived in and around Springfield, showing she learned her lesson from her losing gubernatorial campaign two years earlier. Obama could never put in that kind of personal effort, he said, and McCaskill barely won in a year when congressional Republicans were beaten soundly across the country.
But Obama's organization may outdo McCaskill's. By design, a significant number of his Missouri staffers have local roots. Peachy Myers, who commands the field operation, comes from Rolla, and two deputies are from Joplin and Kansas City.
Nearly 100 volunteers, most from Missouri, just finished a six-week commitment to work 30 hours a week. Many worked more. Volunteers and staffers have canvassed in rural areas where no presidential candidate has operated before. On Thursday, the campaign will open two larger offices in St. Louis and one in Kansas City.
The campaign sees potential advantages in Missouri as Obama tries to do what Kerry and Gore could not. One is the existence of a large black population amid polls that suggest Obama is likely to get more than 90 percent of the African American vote nationwide. Another is geography: Missouri's long border with Illinois has given voters more than average familiarity with the senator from next door.
Obama strategists see an opening, too, in the results of the Feb. 5 Republican primary, in which McCain received just 33 percent of the vote, narrowly beating Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney on a day when 200,000 more Missourians cast ballots for a Democrat than for a Republican.
It was no accident that Obama's first campaign stop designed for the general election was in Cape Girardeau, a conservative Mississippi River community that is Rush Limbaugh's home town.
"The key in Missouri, for a Democrat especially, is you have to show up in rural Missouri," said Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-Mo.), whose family has run eight statewide campaigns since 1980. "They want to see you in their town. They want to know that you're talking to them and listening to them."