KNOB NOSTER, Mo. - At Sloppy Joe's Downtown Bar, the customers form a kind of floating political focus group of west-central Missourians as the state prepares to hold presidential primaries tomorrow along with others coast-to-coast.
"This is a military town, so that kind of narrows it down," said owner Joe Schanzmeyer, 42, scurrying to get Bud longnecks from the cooler for the early afternoon crowd. "We watch a lot of Fox News in here, put it that way."
He said most of his "blue-collar or cammo" crowd is split between Republican front-runner Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a Vietnam War hero, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister popular with social conservatives.
Voters in this town of about 3,000 near Whiteman Air Force Base, home of the nation's B-2 stealth bombers, are just one part of what political history suggests is Missouri's remarkable ability to pick presidents.
Since 1900, the state has voted for the winner in every presidential general election with one exception, 1956, when the state went for former Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson against incumbent Dwight Eisenhower.
This is the first time in years that Missouri's Republican and Democratic primaries have been early enough to be relevant in determining the party nominees, but analysts say the results tomorrow might well reflect what happens in the nation.
That's because Missouri is representative in most important political demographics. The state is a mix of the Northern Plains - up next to Iowa - and the Deep South, the Ozarks region bordering Arkansas. It has two big urban centers, Kansas City, western in character, and St. Louis, considered an eastern enclave. Both cities have large African American populations and suburban swing voters.
Overall, Missouri has about the same mix of urban and rural residents as the nation as a whole; the same percentage of unionized workers; the same percentage of African Americans. And so on. People like to say that you are in the "real" America here.
"It's not quite a one-to-one correlation, but if a candidate can win statewide here, he or she appeals to a wide variety of the electorate in the U.S. as a whole," said George Connor, a political scientist at Missouri State University in Springfield.
While the state's delegate prizes are relatively small, the candidates know that Missouri is a good test, and they have been dropping in on the state in the last few days.
For the Democrats, 72 delegates are at stake, all of them awarded proportionally. The GOP winner takes all of the party's 58 delegates. Voters do not have to register with a party in Missouri and can vote in whichever primary they choose.
The latest polls - and interviews with voters across the state during the last few days - suggest that the results will be close, the verdict potentially divided, just like in the rest of the country. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York are statistically tied in several surveys, and the Republicans have a three-way dogfight among McCain, Huckabee, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Democrats and Republicans alike said they were looking for a president who could end or win the war in Iraq, manage the economy, fix the health-care and immigration systems - and win in November.
The flood of illegal immigrants into the country is a big topic of conversation at Sloppy Joe's, where a Confederate battle flag is pinned to the ceiling and the room is decorated with vintage beer signs. "None of them is tough enough on immigration for me," Schanzmeyer said. He would not say how he was going to vote, just that it would be for a Republican.
"It seems like, for the last year anyway, the Democrats haven't done anything but whine about everything - without a plan," he said, adding that he does not like the idea of Clinton's "socialized" health-care plan. "A lot of people are looking for change, but you've got to be careful what you hope for."
One voter who is seeking change is Robert Smith, 52, a temporary janitor at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis. He said he was planning to vote for Obama, who was about to start a massive rally in the stadium late Saturday.
He said he believed that Obama could change the health-care system. "Plus, I really like that he was against the war from the beginning," Smith said. "He never changed horses on that. He seems to be a righteous guy." If Clinton were elected, Smith said, "Bill Clinton would be running the White House - a third term."
In Columbia, Larry and Sherri Kempf of Boonville arrived more than two hours early for an appearance at the University of Missouri by former President Clinton to campaign for his wife. "I like them running together," said Larry Kempf, 66, adding that with Hillary Clinton, "you get two for the price of one."
Sherri Kempf, 61, said she believed Hillary Clinton would fix the health-insurance mess. Besides, she said, "it's time for a woman president. She's got what it takes. Tough. She can stand up to anybody."
In a Kansas City suburb, Janelle Cross would agree. "I'm not questioning Hillary's qualifications, but I am not sure the country is ready for a woman president," said Cross, 26, who was feeding her 16-month-old daughter, Allie, while visiting with her sister and friend in a Lee's Summit Starbucks.
"I feel Bush screwed up the Republican image. . . . Katrina was the worst emergency response ever, and there's no reason for all these people to be dying in the war," Cross said. She said she really liked Huckabee, but was not sure he could win, and also was impressed with Romney because of his record as a business executive.
Taylor Scharfenberg said she was most impressed with Obama because of his energy and his emphasis on uniting the country. "For those of us just coming into the debate, we've never known anything but negativity in politics," said Scharfenberg, 20, a sophomore at the University of Missouri.
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