KANSAS CITY, Mo. - When Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt withdrew from the presidential race after his defeat in Iowa, many Missourians were deeply disappointed. But the departure of the former Democratic House majority leader, who has served the St. Louis area for 27 years, opened the state s 74 delegates for the remaining presidential contenders.
Many of the candidates have come to Missouri this week, focusing on the urban centers of Kansas City and St. Louis.
North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry both campaigned in Kansas City on Wednesday and yesterday, the Rev. Al Sharpton appeared in St. Louis on Wednesday, and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean was in St. Louis on Friday. They all drew sizable and enthusiastic crowds that included many self-described undecided voters.
But it is clear - both in the polls and in interviews with voters - that many Missouri Democrats are leaning toward Senator Kerry as the candidate with the ability to beat President Bush, who won this state by 80,000 votes in 2000.
Whether or not the state goes to Senator Kerry, the interest in the Democratic primary and the turnout among independent voters could be a harbinger for the general election in November. Missouri has reflected the nation s choice of presidents in all contests since 1904, with the exception of 1956, when it chose Adlai Stevenson over Dwight Eisenhower.
The state is viewed by the Democratic and Republican parties as a critical battleground, as it is narrowly divided between Republican support concentrated in the rural areas, and Democratic support in St. Louis and Kansas City.
Many Missouri voters say they have yet to see signs of economic recovery. Unemployment has risen from 4.3 percent in January, 2001, to 5 percent in December, 2003, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. On Thursday, a Ford Motor Co. division in Hazelwood, Mo., announced it would lay off a third of its work force.
There is not so much anger at Mr. Bush as what voters describe as “disappointment” in his economic and foreign policy, and many of the candidates are trying to tap into that fatigue. Senator Kerry appears to be most successful.
Senator Kerry led the other candidates with 46 percent of the vote in Missouri in a Zogby International poll released yesterday. Senator Edwards was in second place with 13 percent, Mr. Dean held third with 8 percent and 21 percent of voters said they were undecided.
Roy Temple, Senator Kerry s Missouri state director, said the Kerry campaign is using former Gephardt supporters to get on the phones to other Gephardt supporters urging them to vote for the Massachusetts senator.
The Block News Aliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Maeve Reston is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.