MISSOURI is one of those political battlegrounds where the battle is starting to look like a rout.
With five weeks until the election, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton holds a huge lead over President Bush. The latest poll, conducted for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and KMOX Radio, shows Governor Clinton leading 49 percent to 28 percent. That is down a little from the 27-point margin the poll recorded in late July. But it shows that Mr. Bush has moved little since summer.
"If you look at the numbers, you would say Bush might as well pack up and go," says Jim Davis, a political science professor at Washington University in St. Louis.
But the president cannot give up on Missouri. It offers the winner 11 electoral votes. It also mirrors the nation in an uncanny way. Missouri has a little bit of everything. It is home to the East's last city (St. Louis) and the West's first city (Kansas City). It grows Midwestern corn and Southern cotton. Its economy ranks about average among the 50 states. It has voted for the winning candidate in all but one presidential election in this century.
Thus, what happens here is closely watched as a sign of what's happening nationally. Since 1968, the president's winning margin in Missouri has more closely matched his margin nationwide than in any other state. The margin of Sunday's poll was echoed by a new nationwide Washington Post-ABC poll that also showed Clinton leading by 21 percentage points - 58 to 37.
Democrats are confident. "Clinton is going to win Missouri," says Lt. Gov. Mel Carnahan, a gubernatorial nominee. "Normally, it's close. This may be the exception."
Republicans are worried. "It's an uphill fight," says US Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, who is running for reelection. "I think the president is going to start moving up." But Senator Bond is quite willing to point out where he differs with the president.
Bush continues to get poor ratings despite several state appearances here. He recently announced that he would sell $5 billion worth of F-15s to Saudi Arabia. The announcement means thousands of jobs for St. Louis, as McDonnell Douglas, a major local employer, makes the F-15.
Last Tuesday, the president appeared in Springfield, Mo., to bash Clinton's record as Arkansas's governor.
"This man [Clinton] has the gall to go around America and promise the moon, when on issue after issue the sky is falling in his own back yard," he said. "I believe Bill Clinton is wrong to be president of the United States of America."
Some independent observers believe the race will tighten. "Over the last 15 or 20 years, we have seen increasing volatility in the electorate," says David Leuthold, a political science professor emeritus at the University of Missouri at Columbia. He expects a much closer race.
The biggest issue here is the economy. Republicans and Democrats agree on that. But it is somewhat surprising that it plays so prominent a role in Missouri, which has not experienced the brunt of the recession.
When Kemper Securities released its second-quarter state ratings this week, Missouri fared 12th in the country. Having never boomed in the 1980s, its economy has not shattered in the 1990s.
Nevertheless, economic jitters dominate political races here. "I think people have finally grasped the deficit and know that something has to be done," says Steve Veile, communications director for the Democratic candidate for Missouri secretary of state.
"On balance, the economy is not that bad, but there's an anxiety driven in large part by the headlines," says Attorney General William Webster, the Republican gubernatorial nominee.
There may be another reason. This recession, unlike previous recessions, has hurt not only blue-collar workers but white-collar workers as well.
"This time in the recession middle management, professionals, and white-collar workers have been hit as they've never been hit before," Professor Davis says. "If the economy doesn't recover, Bush doesn't recover."
Perhaps Brian Miller, a county employee standing outside a tent at the Cape Girardeau County Fair, sums it up best: "We have drifted along into `malaise' again," he says.