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Inside Politics

Debate puts Missouri back in play

Second presidential meet set for 9 p.m. ET Friday

By Greg Botelho

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ST. LOUIS, Missouri (CNN) -- An election afterthought a few weeks ago, Friday night's debate in St. Louis and a tightening race nationwide have focused fresh attention on Missouri.

Missourians have an established track record in presidential elections, having sided with the national victor in all but one election (Adlai Stevenson in 1956) since 1904. President Bush led handily in September Missouri polls, but Sen. John Kerry's recent progress nationally has shed doubt on the outcome.

"We are very divided," said Washington University political science professor James Davis of the state's breakdown by party affiliation, economics and urban vs. rural areas. "In a sense, we represent the United States." (Special Report: America Votes 2004, the debates)

Some pundits suggest Missouri has moved Republican in recent years. Bush scored a 4 percentage point advantage in 2000 (nationally, he eked out an Electoral College win despite narrowly losing the popular vote), Republicans outnumber Democrats in both chambers of the state Legislature and the state's two U.S. senators are Republicans.

An October poll, conducted for two Missouri television stations after the first presidential debate, painted a different picture: Bush and Kerry are in a statistical dead heat. Although experts are uncertain if the race is that close, they believe it has tightened significantly in recent days.

Political experts say Bush's conservative stances on "values" issues and patriotic fervor could boost his popularity in the state. Election Day turnout and the next two debates, though, could still be decisive.

"Missouri is still in play, partly given the recent trends showing Bush losing momentum nationally and in battleground states," said St. Louis University-based pollster Ken Warren.

"A couple of percentage points shifting among undecideds, or turnout differential, might make a difference," added University of Missouri-Columbia professor John Petrocik. "You could see a lot of movement in a few weeks."

Twists and turns

Bush and Kerry ran neck-and-neck through the spring and summer in Missouri, before the president surged to a strong lead after his party's New York City convention.

An early September CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, taken days after the GOP convention, gave the incumbent a 14-percentage point edge among likely Missouri voters. (Special Report: Poll Tracker)

The president's rise, combined with Kerry and Democratic National Committee's decision to pull Kerry ads, steered many Missourians' attentions away from the election, said Petrocik.

"Some Democrats took on a glum resignation that they would be rolled," he said. "So in some ways, the interest may be diminished, but both sides should still vote."

Warren downplayed the significance of the Democrats' decision to pull ads, saying anti-Bush 527 groups still run commercials extensively, voter turnout efforts continue in earnest, and the Kerry ads may reappear at any time. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, pro-Kerry groups have more than kept up with their Republican counterparts' spending statewide.

Whether or not Kerry overtakes Bush in Missouri, a closer race could force Republicans to shift their national strategy, said Nathan Gonzalez, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

"It is important, because Bush needs to make sure he holds down his own state, instead of looking at a state [Democrats won in 2000]," said Gonzalez.

'Moral values' in Missouri

The religious vote -- the subject of intense national focus as Democrats look to counter GOP campaigning through churches -- has special resonance in Missouri. Recent statements from Roman Catholic Archbishop Raymond Burke illustrate that.

Burke, head of the St. Louis-area archdiocese since January 2004, has said Catholics would commit a "grave sin" by backing pro-choice candidates. About one quarter of Missouri voters are Roman Catholic.

But Burke later modified those remarks, saying he believes that if Roman Catholics are voting for a candidate for a different reason from abortion rights and believe the candidate supports other moral issues more important than abortion, they may vote for that candidate.

Such remarks would seem to help the more conservative Bush. But a spring Quinnipiac University poll found that most American voters, including two-thirds of Catholics, oppose church leaders pressuring voters politically.

Regardless, Warren says "God and country" issues -- exemplified by overwhelming passage of a gay marriage ban this summer -- play significantly in Missouri and the 2004 election.

"Bush connects more with Missourians because this is in the Bible Belt, so moral values mean more to Missourians than they do to most Americans," said Warren, adding that many registered Democrats share this sentiment. "That has allowed Bush to be disproportionately popular compared to other politicians who haven't worn religion on their sleeves."

Long a GOP focus, Democrats have stepped up efforts to win over Missouri churchgoers, the Kerry campaign recently hiring the Rev. David Keyes as in-state religious outreach coordinator.

Both parties have worked diligently to boost turnout. Republicans have concentrated on rural areas and church-based efforts. Democrats, meanwhile, have focused on currying support from Missouri's growing Latino and loyal African-American populations.

"I really think the get-out-the-vote drives could be important," said Latieke Sanford, a St. Louis resident and St. Louis University senior. "I have been seeing a lot of people trying to influence African-American voters -- like calling my house and targeting young people in high schools and community colleges."

Debates could be crucial

Kerry's first debate performance may have tipped the balance in Missouri, said political science professor Davis. (Debating the first debate)

"That gave him new credibility, so people who were undecided now might say, 'I'll take a second look at him,'" Davis said. "More than ever, the outcome may hinge on the second and third debate."

Even with Bush's perceived advantages, history shows that no party can depend on winning Missouri easily.

"When you lose an election, in effect, by 537 votes, you go after everything that could make or break a campaign," Warren said of the 2000 Florida vote that ultimately landed Bush the presidency. "It makes targeting difficult, but you figure that you better do it."

CNN's Jean Weinberg contributed to this report.

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