Showdown in the Show-Me State

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Robyn Beck / AFP / Getty

Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at a campaign event at the Interational Association of Machinists union hall in Bridgeton, Missouri, February 3, 2008.

In Tuesday's Missouri primary, the delegates may matter less than the bragging rights.

The bigger Super Tuesday states have more sway in picking party nominees — places like California, New York, Illinois and New Jersey. But the other states can't match Missouri's record as a barometer of the nation's mood. In politics, as in geography, Missouri is a state in the middle, where east meets west, north meets south, urban meets rural. For 100 years, no one has served as President who didn't carry Missouri at least once.

That's why all the leading candidates — Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama; Republicans John McCain, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee — have campaigned through Missouri in recent days. Obama and Clinton have made multiple stops as they scrambled for the edge in a race too close to call.

"It isn't because of how rich we are in delegates, but because of how rich we are in history as the bellwether state," said Jack Cardetti, a spokesman for the Missouri Democratic Party.

The Clinton-Obama race has tightened dramatically in the past month, Cardetti added. Clinton started with a big lead built on a foundation decades deep. She and her husband occupied the governor's mansion in next-door Arkansas for most of the 1980s, and then Bill Clinton carried Missouri in both of his presidential victories. Last year, Hillary Clinton picked up the endorsement of Kansas City's powerful Rep. Emanuel Cleaver.

But Obama is also a neighbor, hailing from Illinois, and he has the support of Cleaver's St. Louis counterpart, Rep. William Lacy Clay. With the Clay and Cleaver machines pulling the big cities in opposite directions, women and young people may make the difference. Obama has some big guns helping him with the former audience: Sen. Claire McCaskill, the state's ranking Democrat, has joined her popular mom, Betty Anne, and former Sen. Jean Carnahan in pro-Obama TV and radio advertisements.

Meanwhile, the Clinton campaign isn't conceding the student vote. An appearance by the former President on Saturday at the University of Missouri in Columbia drew so many people that the school had to open additional space for the overflow, just one of many huge crowds that both Democrats are attracting throughout the state.

By contrast, the Republican race is subdued. A former state party chairman, Hillard Selck, said he and other party leaders didn't even know, as of last week, who was handling front-runner John McCain's Missouri campaign. That might change with the recent endorsement of McCain by former Senator John Danforth.

Even so, two recent polls indicate that McCain is opening a substantial lead over Mitt Romney, whose main backer in the state is the unpopular lame-duck Gov. Matt Blunt. "We're down to a McCain-Romney fight," said Selck. "And it's my opinion John McCain is going to do well. Mitt Romney is the big-shot Easterner to all us poor folks. John McCain is a hero."

In fact, judging from the limited polling that has been done in Missouri, Romney is in danger of falling behind Huckabee, another former Arkansas governor. Huckabee is doing well in the conservative Christian strongholds of southern Missouri, and may end up helping McCain by pulling members of the Reliable Right away from Romney. McCain, meanwhile, stands to pick up the independent voters who have been the engine of his momentum.

Missouri's demographics and its election rules make it particularly tough to handicap a close race here. Because the state mirrors America, every conceivable issue might gain traction — Missouri has nervous factory workers and ethanol-happy farmers; it has failing school districts and wealthy boomers irritated by the estate tax; it has huge corporations alongside angry populists. No one agenda has captured the race.

As for the rules: Registration for Tuesday's primary was closed weeks ago. Anyone who failed to register won't be able to vote — limiting the last-minute enthusiasm any campaign can whip up. On the other hand, registered voters may participate in any primary they choose. Democrats can vote Repulbican, Republicans can vote for Democrats and Independents may vote for either party. Until the votes are counted, no one can say what impact independents and party-switchers might have.

Two polls released Sunday showed how tight the Democratic race in Missouri has become. A Mason-Dixon poll in cooperation with McClatchy newspapers and MSNBC found Clinton with a 6-point lead over Obama, 47-41, but a Reuters/Cspan/Zogby poll pegged the margin at Clinton 44, Obama 43.

"What was conventional wisdom two months ago" — namely, an easy win by Hillary Clinton — "has been thrown out the window," said Cardetti of the Missouri Democrats. What's left is mystery, until the Show-Me state shows us.