Politics & Government

Missouri Clinton voters want to know more about Obama

Sen. Barack Obama campaigns recently in Cape Girardeau, Mo.
Sen. Barack Obama campaigns recently in Cape Girardeau, Mo. Jae C. Hong / AP

CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. — When Linda Sanders mounted an eight-foot sign on her property urging neighbors to vote Democratic, people threw eggs at it and someone set it on fire.

Sanders, a retired hairdresser, was a fan of former North Carolina senator John Edwards. She's all for Barack Obama now, but she's afraid that if he gets her party's nomination, he may not be an easy sell in Missouri.

"I know people who are distrustful of Obama. But it's not because he's black. They're Hillary people . ... We're not sure we know enough about him personally," said Clara Vaughn, a nonprofit administrator in Lee's Summit, a Kansas City suburb.

With one exception, Missouri has voted for the winner in every presidential election since 1904. If Obama, who's ahead of New York Sen. Hillary Clinton in the race for the Democratic nomination, gets the nod, he'll need to win over people like Vaughn in order to win Missouri's 11 electoral votes in November.

Opinions about Obama are largely polarized in the state's small towns and rural areas, but there's no single reason that voters are wary of him.

The most common complaint about Obama is his lack of experience.

"That's my big objection," said H.H. Townsend, a former New Madrid County treasurer. "At least if Clinton was president, she'd have Bill as an adviser."

When it's noted that Bill Clinton was the same age as Obama when he became president in 1992, people point out that Clinton had governed Arkansas, minutes away down Interstate 55, for 11 years.

But Obama's also from a neighboring state — downtown Cape Girardeau's skyline is dominated by the Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge across the Mississippi River to Illinois — but he doesn't have the same cultural ties to folks as Clinton, who was raised in a small Arkansas town.

Obama's race is on the minds of some people, though it's not a matter they usually discuss publicly. Clearly, though, the publicity surrounding the incendiary remarks of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama's former pastor, has affected some voters.

"That concerns me a bit," said Kenny Bradshaw, a retired railroad conductor from Cape Girardeau. "I think the pastor is racist the other way, and I want people who think everyone has an equal chance."

To many, the Illinois senator remains a largely unknown quantity. "We know everything about Hillary. Every rock, all these years," said Clara Vaughn. "With (Obama), every once in a while, something drips out."

Jeb Morris, a Scott city lineman, said he's troubled by the sources of Obama's campaign money. For all his rhetoric about rejecting lobbyists, Morris still sees a long list of corporate-based contributors.

"I feel like I just don't know him yet," he said.

A lot of folks back Clinton because they were fond of her husband. They remember good economic times and a president who seemed to know them.

"My support for Clinton was really because of her husband's administration," said Morris. "If she were elected, she'd continue his legacy."

Other voters like Edwards, who dropped out of the race six days before the Feb. 5 Missouri primary. In this state, which shares a long border with Arkansas and also touches Kentucky and Tennessee, many identified with his middle-class Southern roots.

Many Hispanics, a key part of the Democratic coalition, remain leery of Obama, as well: "They're not as familiar yet with Senator Obama," said Gennaro Ruiz, a longtime community activist who lives in Blue Springs, a Kansas City suburb.

"It shouldn't be, if they become familiar with him. Unfortunately, there's a lot of misinformation out there that individuals who don't know enough about him yet . . . . It's not just race."

Obama does have some hope in these parts. He campaigned at a Cape Girardeau clothing factory on May 13, and got good notices. A lot of Clinton and Edwards loyalists said they'd probably go for Obama, if only to oust the Republicans.

Edwards' endorsement of Obama the next day was probably a bigger boost, though. It helped push Jamie Tharp, a Benton lineman, over to the Illinois senator's side. "Now I can see he's strong on labor issues," Tharp said.

"I just think we have two good candidates running," said Sanders, who'd backed Edwards because she saw him as strong against big business. Now she thinks Obama will have the same attitude.

"And," she said, "he has charisma."

A quick look around Cape Girardeau illustrates why Obama has a rough task. Downtown is the Rush H. Limbaugh Sr. Federal Courthouse, named after the conservative radio talker's grandfather. A portrait of the radio host is prominent on one the floodwall lining the Mississippi, along with Harry Truman, Frank and Jesse James and Mark Twain.

No one expects Obama to win a majority of Missouri's conservative voters. But if he can get enough Clinton and Edwards Democrats, he's got a shot at carrying the Show Me state.

"I can't vote Republican," said Clara Vaughn. "I'll either vote for Obama or not vote. If it were today, I would not vote. There's still six months . ... He's gonna' have to convince me. I haven't seen it yet."

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