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Michael Moore's showing in Show Me State

Movie is a big draw, but reinforces views.

By Staci D. KramerContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / July 1, 2004



ST. LOUIS

Despite his glee over reports of political conversions and commitments during viewings of "Fahrenheit 9/11," Michael Moore's impact on the presidential race in Missouri probably will be measured by how loudly the choir sings after its members leave the theater.

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In a state where the latest Wall Street Journal Battleground States Poll has President Bush and Democratic contender John Kerry in a dead heat at 48.6 percent to 47.9 percent, even a small number of votes could make a difference. After all, Mr. Bush took Missouri, which has a knack for going with the presidential winner, with 50 percent in 2000.

But interviews, Internet posts, and news reports suggest that most of the thousands of Missourians who saw the movie in its first five days are already anti-Bush. Unless that ratio shifts considerably, it's unlikely that enough undecided voters will see the movie to sway the outcome here - even if all of them shift into Senator Kerry's column.

Some moviegoers are Bush supporters who want to be part of the conversation or to see the movie as entertainment. At the same time, some Democrats and independents are staying away because they don't like the way Moore operates; those who agree with him politically don't always agree with his methods or his arguments. Some moviegoers left believing every word, while even some of his fans saw the film as manipulative.

At the very least, "Fahrenheit 9/11" offers a jolt during the summer political doldrums and has the potential to generate far more energy for Democrats than the predetermined convention in Boston later this month.

The MoveOn.org political action committee struck fast with a national night of volunteer-hosted house parties and meetings last Monday. The hook was a video and online conference featuring Mr. Moore; the goal was to provide concrete ways to get politically active. MoveOn estimates more than 55,000 people took part.

The turnout was higher than organizers expected in the Democratic strongholds of Kansas City, where 125 attendees filled a last-minute house party, and St. Louis, where 300 people met on a University of Missouri campus.

But for MoveOn organizer Matt Ewing, the real shock was the interest in areas usually considered Republican strongholds, such as the standing-room-only meeting in Springfield, Mo., hometown of US Attorney General John Ashcroft. "That's not a place you think of as progressive," says Mr. Ewing.

View from the Allemann household

Two dozen people took the first steps toward turning that energy into activism at the home of Elizabeth Allemann and her husband, Kevin, 15 miles outside Columbia, Mo. The group included three young women who weren't old enough to vote. Asked why they were at the meeting, Dr. Allemann said one explained, "I can't vote but I can pass the word."

For Allemann, a family physician and pacifist who is deeply opposed to many Bush administration policies, "It was lovely to have something to do that was hopeful." Determined not to let the effort end there, the individuals formed a group. They traded contact information and volunteered to take part in MoveOn's national voter registration drive July 11.

She's also trying to find ways to bring the movie to spots in rural Missouri that might not have movie theaters. Of course, there's no guarantee that anti-Bush voters will vote Democratic. Lissa Schwach, a social worker who is anti-Bush, was already sure she wouldn't vote for the incumbent when she went to the movie at the upscale Plaza Frontenac mall in west suburban St. Louis - aka Bush country - last Sunday night. "Bush is not an option," she says, but she's not sure Kerry is the answer.

Brian Brandsmeier comes from a conservative family in Iowa. He voted for Bush in 2000, but says he changed his mind about the president recently while studying in Norway. "I was in the direction of not voting for Bush," he says. "Then I saw the movie and I'm sure."

Any doubts were erased when he heard a grieving mother read a letter received posthumously from her soldier son, who just before his death in Iraq wrote of his disdain for Bush. But what will Mr. Brandsmeier do with that emotion? "I'm going to spread the word," he says, adding that despite the movie's bias he believed the information was true and could be used to sway undecided voters.

By Tuesday, the movie was still doing enough business to fill three screens at the Chase Park Plaza Cinemas in the heart of St. Louis. Operator Harmon Moseley, a Democrat, was elated both by the business coming in and the message going out. He estimated 8,000 people saw the movie in the first three days.

For Philip Barron, seeing the "movie felt like it was an act of defiance itself." He went opening night and sent Mr. Moseley a thank-you note for showing the film. He was unimpressed by the conspiracy theories but he left the movie determined to send money to Kerry.

L.J. Dixon wasn't sure what he would do with his anger. "I'm a Democrat. If I wasn't a Democrat, I would be after that movie," he said as he left a Tuesday matinee. "It should make a difference [in the election]. If it doesn't, there's something wrong."

I'm sticking with Bush

But Patrick Kennedy, a senior at Clemson University, walked into the same showing planning to vote for Bush when he casts his first presidential ballot. He left the same way, unswayed by Moore's hyperbole, although he says the results may be different for undecided voters. "I think it will sway more towards Kerry," he said.

None of the St. Louis theaters will get a cent from high school teacher Terri Schnitzer, an independent who leans Democratic but hasn't made up her mind. "It bothers me because the average man may not know the whole story, and he [Moore] is playing on your emotions," says Ms. Schnitzer. "It wouldn't affect me personally. Would it affect others? Maybe if they were on the fence."

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