As a former first lady of Missouri and a former U.S. senator, Jean Carnahan knows how important a handful of votes can be.
In 2000, her late husband defeated sitting U.S. Sen. John Ashcroft by 78,000 votes two weeks after losing his life in an airplane crash. In 2002, Carnahan lost that same seat, which she had received as an appointee soon after the 2000 election, in an even closer contest as Jim Talent defeated her by 21,000 votes.
On Monday, Carnahan visited Cape Girardeau to give a boost to the get-out-the-vote effort being organized at the Barack Obama campaign headquarters on Broadway. Carnahan is touring the southern portion of the state to give pep talks to the workers and volunteers who work at dozens of Obama campaign offices across Missouri.
"They have a very strong presence in Missouri," Carnahan said. "They have offices in places we never had offices before."
For at least 30 years, rural voters of the state have been increasingly likely to choose Republican candidates for president and more recently the rural areas have become more reliably Republican for statewide, congressional and legislative candidates. The Obama effort and the economic concerns caused by rapidly diminishing pension investments could change that dynamic, Carnahan said.
The Obama offices focused on voter registration during the summer and early fall. Carnahan's daughter, Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, reported that a record 4.2 million people are registered to vote in the state, a number that includes 340,000 first-time voters. Of the new voters, 150,000 are aged 18 to 24.
"There is that chance that this could be a long-range turning point," Jean Carnahan said in an interview. "It could be a political tsunami. We will need to build on that and do what the people want."
The election could result in big Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, Carnahan said.
Since leaving office, Carnahan has helped her children's political efforts -- along with her daughter's office, her son Russ Carnahan is the U.S. congressman from the 3rd District -- written two books and is working on another. This year, she has traveled to eight states to help Obama, some more than once, she said.
Democrats see a building enthusiasm as Obama continues to battle for Missouri, a state abandoned by their nominee, U.S. Sen. John Kerry, in 2004, Carnahan said. Like in 1992, when Bill Clinton carried Missouri and her husband was elected governor, a unified effort is lifting the Democrats, she said.
While Obama and McCain are locked in a tight race, Attorney General Jay Nixon holds a commanding lead over U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof in the contest for governor according to the latest polls.
"It is kind of a perfect storm," Carnahan said. She can't say whether Obama is helping Nixon more in the places where he has campaign offices or if Nixon's strong effort is lifting Obama.
"I can't say one is doing more than the other," she said. "But one is definitely not hurting the other."