Sen. John Kerry talked like a sure thing here on Wednesday, but the polite crowd that greeted the front-runner fresh off his New Hampshire win wanted to be convinced. Hundreds packed the Forest Park Community College cafeteria to see the man who would beat Bush, but many folks were just checking him out. In that most Missourian of manners, the mood in the room was: Show us the goods.
"I decided that I could live with Kerry and I wanted to know more about him," said Jim McLaughlin, 84, a retired bank examiner and veteran of World War II, where he was a pilot. "I like him, but I'm a Bush-hater. I just don't understand why there's so many people that haven't caught on to what a phony Bush is."
Onstage, jacket off and looking relaxed, if a little tired, Kerry got the crowd of 400 rocking only once, when he said Bush and advisor Karl Rove would run their campaign on the war on terror -- only because their domestic record is so dismal. "That's their plan and I can understand why," he said, prompting an impromptu call-and-response session. "They can't run on jobs. (No!) They can't run on the environment. (Yeah!) They can't run on education. (Right!) They can't run on providing healthcare to Americans. (No!) They can't run on the kind of prescription drug benefit that actually helps seniors. (Yeah!)"
Ilyce Chizmadia, a 29-year-old high school teacher who moved to St. Louis from Kerry's home state of Massachusetts last year, was impressed. "I'm a teacher, and he's for my kids," she said. "He has all the issues. Women's rights, everything." But even before the issues, Chizmadia cited the quality that lured many Democratic voters to the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire. "He's an electable guy," she said.
With local boy Rep. Dick Gephardt out of the race after his Iowa defeat, voters in the key swing state must choose a candidate to oppose Bush in November -- with less than a week before the state's primary on Feb. 3, they don't have much time. A Kansas City Star poll published Wednesday had Kerry leading former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean by 16 points here, but with more than a third of voters undecided. Polls have also shown that the senator's support has surged since his wins in Iowa and New Hampshire because he appears to be the Democrat with the best chance of beating President Bush.
"We all know he has the courage, he has the leadership," said St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, who introduced Kerry, "but there's one more important thing. He can go toe to toe with George W. Bush -- and win." Indeed, the chance for regime change in Washington is a hallmark of Kerry's stump speech, and he used it to good effect here.
"This is the Show Me state and we're going to show George Bush the door," Kerry said. That and a closing reference to a presidency that "will have an attorney general who is not John Ashcroft," the former Missouri governor and senator, got the biggest cheers of Kerry's 25-minute stump speech. For the most part, though, the crowd was polite and upbeat, not roused. With the exception of a handful of rabid Kerry supporters in the crowd, most seemed to be shopping for a candidate.
Missouri is an important test for the emergent Kerry not only because its 74 delegates are the largest prize in Tuesday's five primaries and two caucuses, but because it's such a crossroads. Part Plains, part South, part industrial Midwest, Missouri is a classic swing state, one that can go either red or blue in November. It's also, with South Carolina and Delaware, among the first states in which Kerry is competing for significant numbers of black voters.
Bush took Missouri by just 3 percentage points in 2000 and the president clearly considers it a vital state in 2004, having visited 14 times in his first term. Three weeks ago, Bush chose Missouri as the destination for his first trip of the election year and broke a state record by raising $2.8 million at a $2,000-a-plate dinner.
On the Democratic side, Missouri is up for grabs. The Missouri establishment, with the exception of Gephardt, who says he's not publicly endorsing anyone before the state primary, is getting behind him, for what that's worth. Kerry was preceded to the microphone by former Missouri Sens. Tom Eagleton and Jean Carnahan and neighboring Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who all endorsed him Wednesday. Vilsack had remained neutral during the Iowa caucuses. As Kerry spoke, he was flanked on risers by local politicians and friends and yellow-clad firefighters, a much more ethnically mixed group than the mostly white audience.
Kerry, a decorated officer in Vietnam, likes to be pictured with fellow veterans, but there was no such organized show of support Wednesday. Still, some of the vets on hand were among Kerry's staunchest supporters.
"I'm a Kerry man," said Kenneth W. McClendon, 51. "We have something in common. I'm retired from the military. And to hear what he said today made a whole lot of sense." McClendon, who retired from the Navy six months ago, said he appreciates Kerry bringing up his military past. "A lot of times the military people and the veterans are overlooked," he said. "Look at how many homeless people in the city of St. Louis are veterans. It's something that needs to be addressed."
One such veteran is Ronald Kinum, 55, who joined the Army 1st Cavalry two months after it returned from Vietnam and says he just ended four years of homelessness. Kerry's criticism of Bush administration cuts to Pell grants and financial aid hit home for him because he's taking college classes in diesel technology in hopes of starting a new career. He, too, is fine with Kerry playing up his military background, calling him "the man who's standing up and showing some kind of credibility, some kind of leadership. Basically, I think he's the only one who can make this come about where we can finally attack the man who's destroying our country." That last reference is to Bush.
McLaughlin, the World War II vet, isn't crazy about Kerry stumping on his service. "I'm not that high on that, telling how he took care of his men and everything," he said. Comparing Kerry's use of his military past to the standard political gambit of playing up a humble upbringing, McLaughlin said, "I don't know. I don't award any points for that."