KANSAS CITY, Mo. - North Carolina Sen. John Edwards had just given his standard speech about the two Americas that exist under President Bush: one for working Americans and one for the wealthy. It was a message that resonated with Kansas City Democrats Byron J. Buford and Pierce P. Vallier, who stood talking in the back of the city s ornate and historic Uptown Theater.
But they weren t interested in talking about Mr. Edwards charisma, his Southern twang, or his appeal.
They went to the Uptown on Saturday night with the singular mission of so many Democrats this year: to assess whether Mr. Edwards was their best chance among the Democratic candidates to get rid of Mr. Bush and, in their minds, to turn the nation s economy around.
For the men, the main issue this year is not the President s foreign policy or the Iraq invasion - though they are appalled by the administration s actions in those areas. Their chief concern is the loss of 2.5 million jobs nationwide in the last three years and the thousands of people in Missouri who are out of work.
That concern was reflected in a poll by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, published yesterday, in which 31 percent of voters said the economy was the most important issue in this year s election.
When asked about the President s statement in his recent State of the Union address that the American economy is growing stronger and his tax relief is working, Mr. Vallier pursed his lips in disgust.
That ain t got to do with working people, said Mr. Vallier, a 59-year-old writer and part-time teacher. That s rich people talking to other rich people. It s a whole different world out here.
When they say the economy is looking better, that s about people investing and getting cheap labor overseas. They re not talking about regular, working people in America, he said.
Mr. Buford, who is 14th ward committeeman for Missouri s Jackson County, said he sees people looking for work in his community every day. He recently helped organize a job fair with 21 companies in Kansas City. To his surprise, more than 600 people showed up.
I can t put my finger on the number of jobs they had, Mr. Buford said, but I am quite sure there were a lot more people looking for work than there were jobs. ... There s just no jobs out there.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, the candidate that Missouri picks has been an almost fail-safe predictor of who will win the White House. And it is a state that has been closely divided between Republicans and Democrats - a key swing state in 2004.
But as in other parts of the nation, the question of whether Mr. Bush wins Missouri again in 2004 will depend heavily on the economic outlook and the degree of anxiety about job growth among the state s voters. And at this point that is an open question.
Is the economy improving or is not improving? The answer is yes, said St. Louis University economist Patrick J. Welch, underlining the ambiguity in Missouri. I think the picture is murky at this point.
Mr. Bush was popular in Missouri three years ago, particularly in the affluent suburbs of St. Louis and among the socially conservative Republican voters in the rural areas, and he won by 80,000 votes. But former Vice President Al Gore was strong among Democratic voters concentrated in Kansas City and St. Louis.
In a poll of 804 likely voters published by the Post-Dispatch yesterday, 55 percent said they had a favorable opinion of Mr. Bush and 39 percent said their opinion was unfavorable. While the Democratic candidates are clearly determined to beat Mr. Bush, even now none of them had as high a rating as Mr. Bush in the poll, including Sen. John Kerry, who has a commanding lead among Democrats.
About 75 percent of the Republicans surveyed said the country was headed in the right direction, with an equal number of Democrats saying the opposite.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Maeve Reston is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.