Bush working state hard to keep Missouri in Republican column

Sunday, January 11, 2004

ST. LOUIS -- Dana Loesch waited for hours in stifling heat for a glimpse of the big black limousine. It rolled past in a blur, but she was still delighted.

Loesch was no groupie staking out a hot musical act or Hollywood star. The mother of one from Festus rearranged her work schedule on Aug. 26, 2003, just to see President Bush traveling through downtown St. Louis.

"After all," Loesch said, "we just have one president -- and he waved to me."

Republicans are counting on the star quality of the presidency, served up in personal visits by Bush, to help keep Missouri and other battleground states in the GOP column this year.

Bush carried Missouri by fewer than 79,000 votes in 2000. Since taking office, Bush has visited Missouri 14 times, most recently last Monday, when he held his first fund raiser of the election year in St. Louis. Only Pennsylvania and Florida have hosted Bush more frequently, according to an ongoing Associated Press tally.

Can't take it for granted

"Missouri doesn't have a ton of electoral votes, just 11, but it's a swing state and just a few percentage points can separate Democrats and Republicans," said Stacy Ulbig, a political scientist who teaches voting behavior at Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield.

"So Bush not only cannot take Missouri for granted," she said, "he has to work it hard."

And that's exactly what he's doing, with an average so far of a presidential visit to Missouri every 10 weeks since Bush took the oath of office.

Bush touted tax rebates at a Kansas City Target store, praised farmers at a feed mill in Aurora, saluted Missouri's only president with a stop at Harry Truman High School in Independence and comforted tornado victims in Pierce City.

Missouri is a proving ground for themes, slogans and applause lines, because its voters have preferred every White House winner during the 20th century, except in 1956. Bush's audiences and settings are intended to match his message, usually with admission by ticket and through rigorous security, which also happened with past presidents.

Bush's appearances have raised a total of $5.6 million for his own campaign and those of Missouri's two Republican senators, including $2.8 million -- a state fund-raising record for a single event -- collected for the president's re-election last Monday in St. Louis.

Taxpayers always pay for Bush's security, but the campaigns reimburse the government for many expenses when Bush politicks, based on a long-standing formula, said White House spokesman Jim Morrell.

Demonstrators are kept at a distance from Bush. Last week in St. Louis, labor unions tried another approach, buying billboards on the way to Bush's downtown fund-raising venue to criticize his administration's policies on overtime pay.

'Not for normal folks'

Of course, a president draws unrivaled news coverage that critics can only envy. Last week, radio station KMOX carried Bush's remarks at a school live during its highly rated afternoon drive program. St. Louis television stations led newscasts with Bush's visit, and the president was on the front page of the next morning's St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

"Nowadays, presidential visits are not for normal folks. They are mainly fund-raising activities and photo ops in highly controlled situations," said David Webber, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-Columbia. "All normal folks see is the traffic congestion and the news coverage."

Still, many Missourians who have participated in Bush's visits remain dazzled -- and devoted.

Carl Fellers, who runs a family restaurant supply company in Springfield, was singled out by Bush as an example of a hardworking small businessman during an Oct. 18, 2002, Republican rally at Southwest Missouri State University.

"I was already pretty well devoted to Mr. Bush, because of the caliber of person he is. But it was such an honor to get to meet him at the airport and ride in his motorcade. Made me feel important. I just wish the White House hadn't lost the pictures of me shaking his hand," Fellers said.

Greg Hantak, co-owner of J.S. Logistics, said the National Federation of Independent Business recommended his St. Louis plant for a Bush visit a year ago to discuss the economy. A few days after the visit, Hantak and his business sat in a gallery of the U.S. House as guests of the White House to watch the State of the Union address.

"It was a great thing for us. My partner and I got to talk to the president and really liked him, even though I don't necessarily like how he spends money. There's not a spending bill he doesn't like," Hantak said. "But I suppose I'm for Bush if the NFIB likes him."

Other Missourians who had pleasing personal encounters with Bush said they are nonetheless undecided about the election -- or unlikely to vote for him.

The Rev. Fate White said he was invited to sit behind Bush during a Medicare speech in Independence, "probably because I'm so old," the 74-year-old Baptist minister said with a chuckle.

"I think he's great with public relations, but I also think poor people have suffered under this administration and lost jobs because of layoffs, so no, I will not be voting for Mr. Bush," White said.

Chuck Yahng, of St. Louis County, said his brother-in-law recommended to Republicans that Yahng's family fit the profile Bush wanted to highlight during his first domestic trip outside Washington on Feb. 20, 2001.

So Bush welcomed Yahng, his wife and two young children to a tax relief speech at Kirkwood's community center.

Yahng, assistant sports information director at St. Louis University, found Bush likable and engaging, as they chatted briefly about baseball, jogging and NASCAR. While Yahng has met athletic celebrities, "it's a whole other level of superstar power to be president, so it was pretty awe-inspiring."

"I guess Bush is doing a good job pushing his agenda, but in my opinion he is kind of overlooking the powerless people who need help to get by," Yahng said. "Put me down as undecided."

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