Midwest's unlikely bellwether: Missouri

Independent-minded Rolla, Mo., offers a snapshot of why key heartland states may tilt Bush's way.

At the Alex Pizza Palace in downtown Rolla, Mo., locals are more apt to talk about the regional drought and summer vacation plans than the current presidential race. But behind the apparent indifference to politics lie some surprisingly strong feelings.

"I'm against Clinton-Gore," says Gerri, a retiree who won't give her last name.

"If I had to vote today, I'm pretty sure I would vote for [George W.] Bush," adds Neil Book, a chemical engineering professor at the local university.

Those are welcome sentiments to GOP strategists. If Texas Governor Bush plays well in stubbornly independent Rolla, a bellwether in a swing state, he's likely to resonate with independent voters in other battleground states of the Midwest. In a close election, they will prove key to putting the region in his pocket and the White House within his grasp.

"Both parties recognize that the election will be determined in the Midwest as it looks right now," says Brian Vargus, director of the Indiana University Public Opinion Laboratory in Indianapolis.

Out here, Bush's tax-cutting, values-based message so far seems to be out-polling Vice President Al Gore's emphasis on the strong economy. Missourians are "still very conservative in their voting," says Rick Hardy, a political scientist at the University of Missouri at Columbia. "Guns, babies, and taxes - it all boils down to that."

A little bit of everything

On the face of it, Missouri seems an odd choice as a bellwether for the Midwest. With only 11 electoral votes, it's often ignored as presidential candidates focus on the region's top three prizes - Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio, which control nearly a quarter of the 270 electoral votes needed to get elected.

And instead of pure Midwestern roots, Missouri contains a little bit of everything. It boasts the last city of the East (St. Louis) and the first city of the West (Kansas City). If some of its farmers vote Republican like their Midwestern neighbors, its cotton growers swing like Democrats from Dixie.

Missouri's distinction lies in its presidential voting record. During the 20th century, it sided with the White House winner more often than any other state in the union, missing only once (in 1956).

"It is in so many regards a microcosm of the country," says John Hancock, executive director of the Missouri Republican Party. So far this year, he's pleased with what he's seeing. Since the party started polling voters in this election cycle, Bush has never trailed in the state.

In 1992 and 1996, Bill Clinton won because of "wallet issues," explains Kenneth Warren, a political scientist at St. Louis University. This time, when image matters more than issues, "Gore is hurting," he says.

It's early yet, strategists warn. Bush's support, while broad, isn't all that deep.

"It's going to be a real donnybrook," says Dr. Hardy.

In most states, independents hang out in the suburbs. But Rolla hosts a different kind of independent. Ever since 1858, when its residents agreed to be named after Raleigh, N.C., but rejected "that silly spelling," this city of 16,000 residents has remained obstinately nonconformist.

For example: In most parts of the Midwest, the presence of a university tends to breed liberal Democrats. But here, the University of Missouri at Rolla seems to graduate pragmatic engineers rather than political idealists.

Even children display an independent streak. In 1992, as their parents were choosing Mr. Clinton over George Bush, the local junior high school voted for Ross Perot in a mock election.

The rest of Phelps County isn't any more predictable. Economically diverse, with agriculture, logging, a tourist trade, and a military base just across its western border, it attracts residents from around the United States. If rural means Republican in most of the Midwest, here Democrats hold the edge in registration.

Not that party affiliation matters much. In 1998, locals replaced their longtime Democratic state senator with a Republican. "That happens all the time," says Bob Jones, chairman of the county Democratic committee. "We're just as liable to vote for a Republican as a Democrat."

Not surprisingly, independents score well here. During primary season, John McCain generated substantial interest on the Republican side. Among Democrats, although his wife is a distant cousin of Mr. Gore, Mr. Jones stood as a Bill Bradley delegate for the primary.

"The county is not Republican or Democrat. We're real Americans out here," explains Scott Alford, chairman of the Republican Central Committee. It's "the Americana you hear about: wave the flag, apple pie. That's who we are."

Bush's conservative stance on issues, such as his opposition to gun control and abortion, plays well here. It has attracted Bill Smoot, a farmer in nearby St. James and registered Democrat. "I myself don't have much use for the man [Gore]," he says. "He's trying to take away a lot of our rights with gun control and things like that."

Independent, 'a-party'

Still, no one expects a cakewalk for Bush in such a stubbornly independent county.

"I am a-party, politically speaking," says a city employee, finishing up his meal at the Sawmill Cafe in downtown Rolla. "I have been less than happy and enthused in the past seven years with some of the programs that [the Democrats] are pushing. [But] that's not to say I'm 100 percent happy with the other side."

"I'm a voter who on purpose is a late decider," adds Scott Randall, a history teacher at Rolla's junior high.

He looks ruefully at the front of his classroom, where for this day's lesson he's written the names of Watergate conspirators and gasoline prices during the oil embargo. "I probably see myself as being a little more conservative," he adds. "Ten, 25 years ago, it would have been the environment, foreign policy, civil rights." Now his big issue is the high insurance rates charged to young drivers. He had to sell a car recently to insure his 16-year-old son.

If Bush can reach such independents across the Midwest, without alienating them in some other way, the road to the White House could prove short and straight.

*Parts 1 and 2 of the series ran May 16 and May 19.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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