Missouri electorate takes stock of politics, candidates

Sunday, November 3, 2002

ALONG U.S. 50, Mo. -- Retired minister Fred Ackman has "had enough of the Bushes." But gun and bait shop owner Jim Sloan supports the president "150 percent." Anne Parker is a city alderwoman herself but is weary of negative campaigns by all parties: "The slicker they are, the more slippery they are."

At age 21, Craig Schmiemeier is so turned off by politics that he has never registered to vote and doubts he will ever cast a ballot. "I'm not sure my voice matters," says the manager of a paintball game store.

From the suburbs of Kansas City to St. Louis County and in communities along 250 miles of U.S. Highway 50, The Associated Press this week visited with 43 randomly selected voting-age Missourians who shared their moods, preferences, fears and hopes as Tuesday's election approaches.

It was an unscientific sampling of opinions in a state that has picked nearly every White House winner during the past century, making Missouri a reliable national bellwether.

These Missourians say they are mostly settled in their choice for a U.S. senator. As recent independent polls of the larger electorate indicate, the Senate contest in this 43-person universe is too close to call, with a small number undecided.

They naturally focus on matters close to home -- jobs, prescription drug costs, taxes.

But domestic issues are crowded by worries about the roiling international scene, from Iraq right up to the U.S. borders.

They uniformly scorn Saddam Hussein.

But they are mostly unpersuaded about the urgency for military action against Iraq.

They all condemn negative campaign advertising.

But they acknowledge watching the TV ads anyway.

Only a couple expressed unflinching loyalty to a political party, with most splitting their ballots in favor of "the best person."

But discerning which person is best leaves them "worn out," "damned angry" and "awfully confused."

War clouds

The dining room fireplace crackles at John Knox Village, a community of more than 2,000 retirees outside Kansas City. Fred Ackman, 87, the retired Methodist minister, is friendly with Don Belden, an 85-year-old retired chemical engineer, although Ackman is a Democrat and Belden is a Republican. They strongly disagree about Iraq.

"This whole Iraq business is dangerous, and I question whether Bush is up to it. His father didn't settle it," says Ackman. But Belden sees unsettling parallels between Saddam Hussein and Adolf Hitler at the dawn of World War II.

"At some point you've got to dig in your heels and say enough is enough," he says.

At Central Missouri State University in Warrensburg, Army veteran David Korkowski, 33, thinks Saddam Hussein should have been removed from power during the Gulf War in 1991.

"It's long overdue," says Korkowski.

Fellow student Rebecca Craig, 21, disagrees, saying she finds irony "in that we don't want Saddam Hussein to use his weapons, but we will initiate a war with him that could prompt him to try to detonate his weapons against us."

Bundled in a blanket against the damp chill at a freshman football game in California, Peggy Scheidt harbors a parent's natural concern about the safety of her teenage son -- tonight wearing the red, white and blue uniform of No. 9 for the Pintos and slogging across the muddy field of battle against the Fulton Hornets.

"I know we cannot protect our kids forever from harm," says Scheidt, 43. "But as a mom, I would want to know that if he goes off to war someday, it's for the right cause, and I am just not convinced yet about Iraq."

Senate battle

Of the 43 Missourians interviewed, 16 said they preferred Democratic Sen. Jean Carnahan and an identical number backed her Republican challenger, Jim Talent.

Seven said they were undecided, and four -- two registered, two unregistered -- said they have better things to do Tuesday than voting.

In Union, Carolyn Gordon didn't hesitate in ordering Union Grill's baklava or in singling out her reason for backing Mrs. Carnahan.

"It's all about education, and Jim Talent tried in Congress to get rid of the Department of Education," the 60-year-old retired high school teacher said.

At Jim's Sporting near Owensville, owner Jim Sloan is just as adamantly behind Talent because of his backing by the National Rifle Association and support for gun rights.

"I see Jean Carnahan out skeet shooting trying to fool the gun owners," says Sloan, 66. "But she is for gun control and we need to protect our rights."

Customer Tom Hibler seconded his pal's backing for Talent before the store's silent audience of stuffed and mounted heads of deer, moose and buffalo. Hibler also said he is "tired of all these do-gooders who want to tax us to death, and that's Jean Carnahan."

Craig Dalton, a union dump truck driver in St. Louis, polished off his breaded pork chop at the Eat-Rite diner on south Lindbergh Boulevard, lit a cigarette and pondered his Senate choices.

"I hear about world news, but there's not a lot I can do about Iraq. But I have a 15-year-old daughter and I can do something by voting to help education, and I just think Jean Carnahan is stronger there," said Dalton, 35.

Sipping coffee at the Eat-Rite's counter, retired union truck driver Jim Borzillo, 75, says he usually favors Democrats but will vote for Talent because the Republican opposes most abortions.

"Hey, we vote about what we care most about, and I am strongly pro-life," Borzillo said.

Voting and patriotism

Winston Blakely's pager goes off during California's football game and the 62-year-old retiree checks whether he needs to scramble as a volunteer firefighter. Once he gets an all-clear, Blakely returns to munching his hot dog, watching the game and talking about the role of citizens in society, especially in elections.

"The issues today are just so important, such as our homeland security, and our leaders don't know how we feel if we don't vote," he said.

Blakely said he supports Mrs. Carnahan but considers Talent "a fine man" and believes voters have a distinct choice between "two strong candidates."

It's a choice that Kim Shetron, 35, of St. Louis, won't bother to make. She has never registered to vote because politics is so unappealing.

"I'd rather die than listen to a bunch of politicians," she says.

Terry Whitney, 45, owner of a small construction company in Linn, escaped the rain for breakfast at Judy's Cafe and worked on bid estimates. He leans Democratic but prefers Talent for Senate. However, if Election Day weather is good, Whitney plans to be working, not voting.

"I'm just tired of politicians," he says.

Ann Novotney, 39, who juggles ownership of an suburban St. Louis stained glass company with a part-time job, said she likes Carnahan but is too busy to vote because "I'm too busy to be tuned in on this election."

Retiree Paul Ross, 85 and an undecided Senate voter, said the media should shoulder some blame for low voter turnout.

"The negative, sensational news coverage, I think, makes us go downhill as a civilization, so who can blame people for being sick of it all?"

But retiree Mary Alice Gensor, 66, has no patience for slacking voters.

"With all the flag-waving going on, I think you ought to have to show a card saying you voted before you can wave the Stars and Stripes," says the retired nursing educator from Lee's Summit. "Being patriotic means participating in the election and having your say."

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