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Candidates are at the end of the long and winding election road

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: November 3, 2008 - The high-energy campaigns that the presidential and gubernatorial candidates have waged in Missouri have led to a voter-registration surge that promises to end with a bang on Election Day. A record 76 percent of voters, or roughly 3.2 million people, are expected to cast ballots.

Even before this registration upswing became apparent, the importance of Missouri and the need for a new strategy to capture the state's political prize weren't lost on either Republican John McCain or Democrat Barack Obama.

From the outset, Obama signaled he wouldn't be captive to politics as usual. One of his first stops after securing the Democratic presidential nomination in Denver was in Cape Girardeau, hardly known as a Democratic bastion. Then, this past Saturday, he made another unusual stop in Missouri. This time, with his wife and daughters in tow, he staged a rally in Springfield, in Greene County, another GOP stronghold.

These trips plus running mate Sen. Joe Biden's repeated appearances have underscored the Democrats' intent to mine nontraditional political territory in search of undecided and potential crossover voters in a race that has left Missouri too close to call up to the day before the election.

McCain and his surrogates, including his running mate Gov. Sarah Palin, also have made plenty of visits to Missouri. McCain and his supporters have focused mainly on GOP political bases in places like Springfield and St. Charles County -- hoping to hold onto Missouri territory claimed by President George W. Bush in 2004. Yet McCain also is appealing to swing and undecided voters by playing up his image as a maverick and his willingness to work across party lines. In the final days of the campaign, McCain also has returned to his theme of being best equipped to run the country during an international crisis.

It's instructive to remember that neither candidate was his party's annointed one.  

In late summer 2007, McCain was limping along, given little prospect of success with the seemingly more magnetic Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani. It was the New Hampshire primary that put him back on course. 

When Obama launched his candidacy two years ago, most political pundits regarded it as a test run. The conventional wisdom had dubbed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., the front-runner because she had the backing of the party establishment and a hefty campaign treasury as well. But Obama outmaneuvered her on the ground, soliciting and winning grass-roots support with the help of an army of idealistic young volunteers who knocked on doors and took his theme of change to voters who Clinton took for granted or didn't bother to reach.

Known for his soaring oratory and ability to attract big crowds - an estimated 100,000 showed up to see him at the Gateway Arch, for example -- Obama also has stumbled a few times. He was accused of being out of touch with the very voters he was trying to reach in places like Cape Girardeau and Springfield with his much-quoted comments that working-class people cling to guns and religion out of economic frustration. Obama also had to disassociate himself from his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, while his wife, Michelle, took some heat over comments that conservatives took to mean she had never felt proud to be an American until her husband's presidential campaign.

McCain, meanwhile, has faced setbacks partly because of the economic recession and his support of the unpopular Iraq war. Still McCain also has positioned himself as experienced and capable in foreign policy, including potential confrontations with Russia. As the race tightened this week in Missouri, the McCain campaign returned to the theme that he is better equipped than Obama to handle an international crisis.

But the war, terrorism and international security have turned out to be less important to voters than they were before the political conventions. The mortgage crisis and the economic downturn have captured the attention of every voter, raising anxiety over the loss of jobs, homes and investments.

The candidates are promising strikingly different solutions to a range of other problems. Obama would use federal policy to give most Americans access to health care coverage while McCain would rely mainly on market forces, such as tax policies, to expand coverage.

On economic issues, Obama promises to raise taxes on people earning more than $250,000 a year, impose a temporary freeze on some foreclosures, and give workers facing hardships penalty-free withdrawals from their retirement funds. McCain, on the other hand, promises to set aside $300 billion of the federal bailout plan to buy mortgages and allow people to renegotiate with their banks and remain in their homes.

The governor's race

Meanwhile, Missouri's gubernatorial race has experienced its own roller coaster effect. Gov. Matt Blunt surprised even those Republicans closest to him when he announced he would not seek re-election. Instead of closing ranks around a consensus candidate, the Republicans had a spirited -- some would say, even mean-spirited -- primary, with state Treasurer Sarah Steelman trying to defeat the less well-known but establishment supported U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof. 

Attorney General Jay Nixon, a Democrat, made his gubernatorial campaign a referendum on Gov. Matt Blunt's cuts in Medicaid benefits -- and barely changed course even after Blunt, a Republican, declared he would not seek re-election. Nixon, a Democrat, promises to restore the cuts by drawing down millions of federal matching dollars for states that invest more of their money in health care for the needy.

Hulshof disagrees. Instead of promising to spend more on Medicaid-like programs, Hulshof, a Republican, has campaigned on using a market-based approach of allowing Missourians to buy into health care that he said would be affordable and accessible.

Nixon also has linked Hulshof to Blunt's economic policies, saying Missouri has lost more jobs in a year than the number lost by all border states combined. Hulshof points to studies showing that Missouri's record for creating jobs has improved under Blunt's policies.

On education, Nixon wants to make college affordable by expanding the number of students qualifying for free tuition, while Hulshof promises to increase state appropriations for higher education as a way of reducing the cost of tuition.

The federal and state campaigns have been improbable in many ways and filled with precedents. For the first time, an African American heads the ticket of a major political party. And no matter which party wins, either an African American or a woman will serve as president or vice president.

Yet, despite the historic nature of the election, voters are expected to be motivated by less lofty -- and more down-to-earth -- concerns. The mantra dominating Bill Clinton's first run for the White House applies again this time, perhaps even more.

The smartest candidate -- and likely the winning candidate -- may be the one who's best remembered, "It's the economy, stupid."

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.

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