JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The Missouri Democratic Party will stage a presidential debate next Monday night, the eve of the state's suddenly competitive White House primary, a top political aide to Rep. Dick Gephardt said Monday.
The 90-minute debate will be held at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and the major candidates are being invited, Jason Norton, state political director for Gephardt, told The Associated Press.
Norton stressed that the state Democratic Party, and not Gephardt, is putting together the debate.
Gephardt withdrew from the presidential race last week after finishing fourth in the Iowa caucuses. Norton said the St. Louis congressman is vacationing and doesn't plan to attend the debate or endorse a candidate before Missourians vote.
"Congressman Gephardt is letting the process go forward and he wants people in Missouri to hear from the candidates," Norton said. "The people in Missouri haven't had the same opportunity to hear from candidates that other states voting Feb. 3 have had, so this will allow the candidates to come in and say their peace."
Delegates at stake
There are 74 national convention delegates at stake in Missouri on Feb. 3, the largest delegate haul of any of the seven states voting that day.
The debate will be staged at the new, 1,625-seat Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center on the campus of the university in north St. Louis. Norton said tickets would be distributed to each of the candidates' campaigns, along with students and Democratic activists, including union members who were among Gephardt's most steadfast Missouri supporters.
Norton said the party was negotiating with Missouri public and commercial television stations about carrying the debate live starting at 7 p.m. Monday, but he had no details on media sponsorship or the format.
"We hope it can be carried live in St. Louis, Kansas City and other markets," Norton said.
Introduction to Missouri
David Robertson, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said the debate could essentially be an introduction to Missouri for the candidates, who had mostly ignored the state before Gephardt's withdrawal.
"There is relatively little information about the candidates in this state other than what we are hearing from national news, and no advertising so far. This could allow Missourians to make a judgment, and it could be significant if it's on statewide television," Robertson said.
John Kerry and John Edwards both plan to campaign in St. Louis on Wednesday, once New Hampshire's votes are counted. In the 2004 Democratic primary, the St. Louis metropolitan area turned out almost three-quarters of Missouri's votes.
Edwards will also make a stop Wednesday evening in Springfield, said state campaign director Julie Gibson, who switched after Gephardt quit the race.
"Our strategy is that we think John Edwards has a message that will resonate across Missouri, both rural and urban areas, which is why he is hitting Springfield and St. Louis this trip," Gibson said Monday.
Edwards is also counting on a strong showing Feb. 3 in South Carolina, where he was born. His Missouri spokesman, Mike Kelley -- another former Gephardt staffer -- said the campaign hadn't received information about the Missouri debate as of Monday evening. "Everything is up in the air," Kelley said.
Retired Gen. Wesley Clark now has six staffers and more than 2,200 volunteers in Missouri, said Nathan Ballard, newly minted state campaign spokesman, who was working out of his suitcase at a suburban St. Louis hotel. Ballard said he wasn't sure whether Clark would participate in the Missouri debate, but he said the campaign was working on getting the candidate into the state late this week.