Can Obama's Grass-Roots Army Win Missouri?

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Kansas City Star / MCT / Landov

Senator Barack Obama in Kansas City, Mo.

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Obama's Missouri plan also mirrors his national strategy, McCaskill says. "It's a metaphor for the way Obama sees his job, governing from the bottom up," she says. Renting Main Street storefronts in small-town Missouri and staffing them with paid workers is a way of proving that he can reach out to all walks of American life. No way, no how, Obama's staffers insist, will they do as John Kerry did in 2004, waving the white flag in Missouri a full three weeks before Election Day to pour his resources elsewhere. "We need to make sure no one is confused about Barack Obama's commitment," says McCaskill.

McCain has led most of the summer in this bellwether state — Missouri has gone with the winner in every presidential election but one since 1904 — with just a skeleton crew in place. In fact, paid McCain staffers are so scarce in these parts that reporters have to call Iowa if they want a comment. Tina Hervey, the state GOP spokeswoman, says the McCain camp is simply doing a better job of marshaling resources — and they are confident that the "72-hour strategy" of flooding likely Republican voters with phone calls, direct mail and even personal visits in the last few days, used to boost President Bush to re-election in 2004, can be reactivated.

No matter what more recent polls suggest, Obama's push in Missouri's conservative corners strikes Republicans as bluff, bluster and a bizarre waste of time and money. "You can't run out in the middle of the Ozarks and open an office and expect anybody to give a damn," says Selck. "Republicans are Republicans." Adds Hervey: "We are the Bible Belt. We are the home of John Ashcroft," referring to the son of a Pentecostal preacher who, after serving as Missouri governor and U.S. Senator, was appointed Attorney General and promptly ordered $8,000 in drapes to cover half-nude statues at the Justice Department.

That reality has not escaped the foot soldiers manning some of Obama's most remote outposts. At a former beauty school in Sikeston, in the southeast part of the state known as the Bootheel, an Obama staffer picked up the phone recently and was asked what it's like behind enemy lines. There was a long pause. At last he said, "It's a tough state."

Tough, yes, says McCaskill. But winnable. "This is going to be a typical Missouri horse race. It's gonna be close. It's going to keep you excited all the way up to 2 o'clock in the morning on election night."

(View a gallery of campaign gaffes here.)

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