In Missouri, GOP volunteers are on their own

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

On behalf of John McCain, Tom Kuypers does his best.

Addressing three dozen of his fellow members of the Pachyderm Club, a Republican organization that met Friday in the back room of a Golden Corral restaurant here, Kuypers, 69, talked movingly about McCain's service in Vietnam.

Flashing polling data he found on the Internet, he argued that McCain had the best chance of winning the general election. He handed off a critical question about the Arizona senator's record on immigration to a Puerto Rican engineer who runs the local Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

But some questions were too much. Asked why McCain wanted to close the detainee camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Kuypers allowed, "I have no idea." An insurance agent asked why McCain had voted against tax cuts proposed by President Bush in 2001 and 2003, and Kuypers answered: "He probably got up on the wrong side of the bed that morning."

After the talk, Kuypers, a retired Boeing engineer, accepted congratulations for his effort but said he would love more information about McCain: "I've tried contacting the campaign, but nobody knows who's in charge in these parts."

It is a familiar refrain here among Republicans, be they supporters of McCain or the other major GOP candidates. With Missouri just one state among more than 20 with nomination contests today, none of the leading contenders seem to have the time or resources to compete aggressively here. And their sometimes-flummoxed local volunteers have been left to fend for themselves.

The only presidential candidate to campaign in the county, Rudolph W. Giuliani, quit the race last week. Republican voters marvel at how little mail they have received from the presidential contenders. Many officeholders haven't been asked for their endorsement.

"I haven't been contacted by any of the campaigns," said Steve Ehlmann, the popular county executive who was previously a Republican leader in the state General Assembly. "People are not talking about the election as much as they maybe should be."

Ever since a couple of intrepid campaigners named Lewis and Clark launched their bid for the West at this intersection of the floodplains of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, this has been an essential American place -- "the greatest crossroads the world ever saw," in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who visited in 1852.

St. Charles County, extending west from the St. Louis suburbs toward this state's rural interior, offers a microcosm of Midwestern conservatism with plenty of evangelicals, more than its share of veterans (who worked in defense industries or in a base not far away in southern Illinois), and business owners who have turned the floodplains into a sprawling river of shops and subdivisions.

Despite some recent Democratic gains, the county remains a crucial Republican proving ground in a state where polls show a close three-way race among McCain, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. The winner in today's Missouri primary will take home all of the state's 58 GOP delegates.

George W. Bush made stops here during both of his presidential campaigns. Between 8% and 10% of Republican votes in Missouri are expected to come from here, according to Terry Jones, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Kenneth Warren, once a pollster for former Rep. Richard A. Gephardt and now a political science professor at St. Louis University, said, "It's a very large Republican county, and it's a pretty good barometer of how the state is going to go."

But this political year has been unsettling for Republicans here. Some are still reeling from the unexpected January announcement that the governor, Republican Matt Blunt, won't seek reelection. Some are unnerved by the energy of Democrats.

While the Republican contenders were supposed to begin airing TV ads over the weekend, Democratic contenders Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton have been dominating the airwaves.

On the ground, each Republican campaign is depending on informal and unsanctioned supporters such as Kuypers, who campaigned for McCain on Friday.

The most aggressive of these efforts belongs to Huckabee, whose local supporters found one another on the Internet and spent Saturday knocking on doors. Unable to secure signs from the campaign, Josh Ward, 31, a technology equipment salesman, drove up to the Iowa border Wednesday to retrieve signs left over from the Jan. 3 caucuses there.

"I have not talked to one person who is legitimate for the campaign," said Ward, a minister's son. "We have some door hangers I've printed out here on my own. I also put some of those on cars in church parking lots."

Rod Jetton, the speaker of the Missouri House and Romney's political director in the state, said the campaign did not have the staff or money to make all the phone calls it needed. "I'd like more resources," he said.

With more time and voter contact, Jetton added, the state would be sure to go for Romney.

McCain, who has a small lead in recent Missouri polls, is relying entirely on national media coverage and a few select interviews with local Missouri TV news anchors to get his message out. Charles Black, a senior advisor for the campaign, said McCain had had offices in Missouri and other Super Tuesday states but had to close them last year because of financial problems.

"We have a de facto national primary," Black said. "If we have the national momentum, we'll do well here."

Each of the three leading Republican candidates has made an appearance in neighboring St. Louis to get on TV, but each has been undermined by other events. Huckabee stopped in St. Louis last week as results from the Florida primary dominated the news, McCain's rally Friday took place as a large snowstorm grabbed widespread attention and Romney's visit Sunday was up against the Super Bowl.

Republicans here say they have less information about the contenders, and a majority of more than 50 people interviewed last week said they had yet to decide on a candidate.

At the Cracker Barrel in St. Charles, a group of diners discussed the relative merits of Romney and McCain. After Wednesday night Bible study at Ridgecrest Baptist Church, attendees said they were debating whether to stick with Huckabee, a former Southern Baptist minister, or switch to Romney, who appears to have a better chance of winning the nomination.

At the Bob Evans next to Mid Rivers Mall in St. Peters, tractor driver J.B. Allman, 80, pored over the election coverage in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, a newspaper whose editorial line he doesn't always trust. "What do you know about these guys?" he asked, to no one in particular.

Even top local Republicans are undecided. "I've never come this close to an election without knowing who I'm going to vote for," said county Republican Chairman Jon Bennett.

At the Pachyderm Club meeting Friday, Bennett and others discussed the candidates, spending considerable time on their weak points. Members seemed to be moving, grudgingly, in McCain's direction, though there were holdouts.

Bernie McCann, a retired high school political science teacher who is president of the club, backs Romney. He thinks the former governor's conversion to more conservative positions on social issues is genuine.

"I believe that you can be converted, like St. Paul," McCann said.

Bob Osborn, a retired St. Louis city employee who favors McCain, shook his head in response. "St. Paul was converted," he said, "but he didn't immediately run to be Jesus."

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