San Diego Union Tribune

February 2, 2004

Primary sneaks up on voters in Missouri


ST. LOUIS Standing on the edge of a large crowd awaiting the arrival of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry last week, Richard Shrock turned to a friend and asked, "When is our primary?"

When the friend told him it was only six days away, Shrock appeared to be surprised. But the retired businessman from St. Louis' West End said he planned to vote and would vote for the Massachusetts senator because, "I just like the way he talks."

Shrock's confusion over the timing of the presidential primary and his preference among the Democratic candidates capture the shock this state finds itself in with a primary nobody saw coming and a front-runner few saw arrive.

Although the 74 delegates at stake here make Missouri the biggest prize of tomorrow's seven contests, the state had received little attention from the Democratic contenders. They all had assumed it would be won easily by Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt.

But when Gephardt dropped out Jan. 20 after his fourth-place finish in Iowa, "a mad scramble started," said Kenneth Warren, a political science professor and pollster at the University of Missouri St. Louis.

"I think it's turned into a very interesting race, not only because there are so many delegates, but because the campaigns were not organized."

Campaigning in the Show Me State on such short notice, however, became a major challenge for the candidates, most of whom were short on cash after the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.

With both his image and his campaign treasury bolstered by his wins in the first two tests, Kerry has opened up a sizable lead here, according to polls taken after he topped the field in New Hampshire last week.

Despite his 19 years in the Senate, Kerry has campaigned here as a populist outsider, attacking Washington lobbyists and evoking the memory of Missouri's favorite Democrat, Harry S. Truman.

His main challenger here is Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, the only other candidate running TV ads. But Edwards is a distant second in the polls.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, his front-runner status and fund-raising deflated by third-and second-place showings, made only one campaign stop here. Dean's campaign has embarked on a strategy of largely bypassing tomorrow's seven-state sweepstakes to focus on later contests.

Civil rights activist Al Sharpton made two quick stops in St. Louis last week seeking support from black voters here, telling them that if he can take delegates to the party's national convention "they can't ignore us." But he is not expected to reach the 15 percent threshold needed to win delegates.

The other Democratic aspirants retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark; Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio; and Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn. have bypassed Missouri to focus on some of the six other states where they think they might do better.

"The state is definitely up for grabs," Warren said. "Kerry benefited from it being up to grab at the right time. By the luck of it, Kerry was the hot item . . . when it became open."

He still is, according to the polls. The daily voter survey conducted for Reuters and MSNBC by pollster John Zogby yesterday showed Kerry at 43 percent, Edwards at 14 percent, Dean at 8 percent, Clark, Lieberman and Sharpton at 3 percent each, and Kucinich at less than 1 percent.

Although most of the candidates have focused on South Carolina, political analysts consider Missouri a better microcosm of the nation.

The state's population of 5.6 million, about 15 percent of which are minorities, is spread over two large metropolitan regions, a dozen smaller cities and a large area of small towns and farms. Its economy is a mix of manufacturing mainly automobiles and military aircraft agriculture, tourism and transportation.

And Missouri is considered the ultimate swing state and political bellwether, selecting the winning presidential candidate in every election except for one in the past century, the exception being 1956 when the state voted for Adlai Stevenson instead of Dwight Eisenhower.

Gephardt's favorite-son status kept Missouri in the shadows until he exited the race.

That set off a rush to attract his supporters, who had included most of the state's Democratic officeholders and veteran political operatives. Kerry won that contest although Edwards gained a number of endorsements, including Rep. Ike Skelton, who holds a nominally Republican district in the state's southwestern corner. The three other Democratic House members, including Gephardt, have stayed neutral.

But Kerry, who had been second to Gephardt in an early January poll, became the new favorite largely on the perception of many Democrats that he may provide the best chance of defeating President Bush.

Robert Goldson, a lawyer from Webster Grove, said he was leaning toward Kerry because, "I want someone who can beat Bush. I certainly haven't been satisfied with his administration."

Eugene Wallace, a black Democratic activist from St. Louis' West End, said he had favored Kerry from the start because he did not think Gephardt would win in November. "I thought Kerry was stronger."

That view, of course, is not universal.

Enduring single-digit temperatures waiting to get into an Edwards appearance in St. Louis last week, Blake Bastien, a natural gas marketer from Chesterfield, said he thought Edwards' Southern heritage and moderate views on issues such as gun control gave him the best chance to defeat Bush.

And Dean's only campaign stop here Friday drew a large crowd of supporters who insisted that his band of volunteers would make up for no TV ads.

Diana Ortbal-Avalos, the St. Louis-area coordinator for Dean, said the organization included at least 600 "hard-core" volunteers and 10,000 more in their computer database.

"Everything we've done has been by volunteers, people giving up their nights," she said. "We all have full-time jobs."

But others discount the effectiveness of such grass-roots efforts in a state the size of Missouri with so little time to campaign.

"It's all going to be about the message and the ad campaign, what they do on TV and radio," said Rep. William Lacy Clay, who represents most of St. Louis.

Kerry's TV ads open with video of him in Vietnam in combat fatigues and a helmet, carrying an M-16, and include endorsements by black veterans who served with him.

"Kerry's the kind of candidate who will appeal to Missourians," Warren said. "He can push the patriotism. Veteran's status means a lot more in Missouri than in Massachusetts."

There are nearly 600,000 veterans in Missouri, nearly one-third from the Vietnam era, a group that has largely supported Kerry.

One of Edwards' ads opens with him in front of his childhood home in South Carolina to illustrate his modest roots.

"If you know where you came from," he says in the ad, "you always know where you are going."