'Ground War' Waged in Divided Missouri

In the 2000 presidential election, Democratic candidate Al Gore won Clay County, Mo., by one vote out of 80,000 cast. The picturesque town of Liberty, the county seat, voted for George W. Bush.

Four years later, folks still seem pretty divided.

"We all get along pretty well, Democrats and Republicans," said Clay County election board chair Tina Tucker. "Of course, we get a little bit testy right up to the elections, but it's all over once the elections are gone. It's a nice place to live."

Given the surge of interest in the presidential race, the county has registered more than 3,000 new voters; there were only 800 in 2000. In Clay, as in many parts of the country, this year's effort to register and motivate voters has been unprecedented.

Political Ground War

In the fairly quiet, largely good-natured community, the "ground war," as the professionals call it, leaves no stone unturned.

"We find out where they stand on the candidates," said Michael Sandbothe, a Kerry campaign canvasser. "We have a system of one through five. A one is a strong Kerry, and a five is a strong Bush. We try to go to doors that are a two or a three."

"It's house by house, street by street," said Bush campaign volunteer Mary Jilka. "We've probably knocked on definitely 100 doors."

"It's high-tech, high-touch. We use technology to identify voters to retain information and retain the high touch of the personal call, that personal canvassing from your neighbor," said Warren Erdman, co-chair of the Bush campaign for the state of Missouri.

Kerry's team is equally equipped and dedicated to the cause.

"You're it. You're the army," said Missouri Lt. Gov. Joe Maxwell, who is backing Kerry. "You're what's going to make a difference. You can do it."

Family Lends a Hand

Bush has an edge in statewide polls at the moment, and Kerry has cut back on his advertising. The Bush campaign is still sending surrogates to the state, including Bush's uncle William "Bucky" Bush.

"We're the Marines of the ground war," said Bucky Bush, who toured Liberty and neighboring towns this weekend. "They wanted to have an important member of the family come here."

Clay County was traditionally Democratic 20 years ago. Local farmers voted for Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson in 1956 largely because he spoke about issues that appealed to them. That was the only time the county voted for the eventual loser of a presidential race in 100 years.

Liberty Reflects America

Liberty's mayor, Steve Hawkins, who is proudly nonpartisan, says he has never seen anything like this year's race.

"We probably reflect a good mix of what the country is all about," he said. "And the way that Liberty and Clay County has changed reflects, perhaps, the way the country has changed."

The arguments are the basic ones -- the war in Iraq, the economy and individual leadership.

The county, like the state, is more conservative than the country as a whole. Thirty-six percent of registered voters in Missouri say they are born-again Christians and say they like Bush's leadership qualities.

Jacqueline Midkiff, owner of the Hardware Café in Clay County, is torn between the comfort she feels because of Bush's strong religious faith and her feeling that Kerry might have a better answer for the economy.

"One thing that's very important to you swings you towards one candidate. Another thing, that is your livelihood, what you need to provide your family with, swings you another way," she said. "I'm afraid I'm going to decide when I'm in the booth."

Peter Jennings filed this report for World News Tonight.

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