The nine Democrats vying for the presidential nomination make the case at every campaign stop that the nation needs fresh leadership. But millions of voters aren't about to consider that.
With a year to go until the election, a solid core of Americans emphatically back George W. Bush for a second term -- no matter who else is on the ballot. They approve of his conservative values. Mostly, though, they admire his character.
Simply put: They trust him.
"Even if I don't line up with him exactly on all his policies, I want a president who stands up for what he believes in," said Robert Koerper, 44, a restaurant owner. "You always know where he's coming from. That's the kind of leader I want."
Such responses are not unique to this city of 16,000. National polls conducted in recent weeks have found a majority of Americans skeptical about the president's actions on such pivotal issues as taxes, the economy, health care, social security, foreign affairs and the war in Iraq. Still, about 55% say they approve of the way Bush has handled the presidency overall.
An ABC News/Washington Post poll late last month found that just 40% of Americans thought Bush understood the problems they face in daily life. By large margins, they expressed concerns about the cost of the campaign in Iraq, anger at the rising number of casualties and anxiety that the U.S. would get bogged down in a long, expensive mission. They also overwhelmingly expressed frustration with the national economy.
Yet 62% rated Bush as a strong leader. Nearly 60% called him trustworthy.
Against a generic Democratic nominee, Bush won by one percentage point, but in hypothetical matchups with specific Democratic candidates, he won handily.
And the president has had no trouble finding financial backers, either: His campaign has raised more than $100 million in the last six months.
Clayton, a wealthy suburb west of St. Louis, is important territory for the president to mine for both votes and funds. A financial and corporate hub with one of the best school districts in the state, Clayton backed Al Gore over Bush in 2000 by nearly 60% to 40% -- though Bush carried the state by a narrow margin. But Republican strategists consider the region a hot battleground in what they expect will be another close race.
State GOP officials have already started to organize activists for door-knocking campaigns here and around Missouri. "If you look back at what we did in 2000, we can definitely build on it," said Paul Sloca, a state Republican Party spokesman.
Judging from more than two dozen interviews in Clayton last week, the party can safely devote most of its resources to wooing independent voters. The Republican base, it seems, is secure.
Over bagel sandwiches and cappuccinos, in jewelry stores and on construction sites, voters who cast their ballots for Bush in 2000 mostly expressed enthusiasm for his reelection.
A few voters linked their support to Bush's signature issues.
"He's pro-life and that's the No. 1 thing," said William Erker, 76, a real estate broker.
"I wanted reform in taxation," said Spiros Protopsaltis, 45, a financial consultant.
"He's done a lot for the country by taking an active role against terrorism," said accountant Steve Weigand, 35.
Most of the Bush backers, however, cited not his policies but his personality as the key to their votes. As restaurant owner Kari Lynch, 42, said with a shrug: "I just like him."
In fact, when measuring Bush's performance issue by issue, many voters found much to gripe about.
They complained that he gives too many tax breaks to the rich. That he alienates allies abroad. That he is paying far too dear a price, in blood and billions, in the occupation of Iraq.
Still, all but a few said they want him back in the Oval Office for four more years.
"He's less phony than most of the candidates. He's more credible. And I can understand him. He speaks at my level," said Gene Goldman, 50, a financial advisor.
"I hate politics, but he's much more professional than anyone else," added court reporter Sandy Moriarty, 44.
On the other hand, Dick McCoy, 60, a cigar salesman, could find common ground with any of the Democratic contenders.
He winces at a mention of Bush's tax cuts, for instance: "It was not the wisest thing to do." He chafes at Bush's policies on abortion and other social issues, saying, "I'm very liberal when it comes to those." He has voted for Democrats in the past.
Yet McCoy does not plan to give Bush's opponent in 2004 much of a look. For all their differences in policy, he simply likes the president.
"I would have to give the guy high marks," McCoy said, puffing on a cigar. "As a leader, he certainly stands by his guns. He doesn't waver. I'm pleased to have him in there -- and I think it will be hard to get him out."
Randy Catcher, 48, is more willing to consider voting Democratic. He's concerned about the spiraling budget deficit. And he's even more anxious about Bush's foreign policy. He fears the administration may be pushing too hard to project U.S. power and influence around the globe. He worries that "we're in a no-win spot" in Iraq.
So yes, he says, he'll take the Democratic nominee seriously.
Then Catcher pauses, reflecting. He's opening a new restaurant in Clayton, called First Watch. If it's doing well this time next year, Bush will likely get his vote, despite his qualms. "If the economy perks up again," Catcher said, "I think we probably shouldn't upset the apple cart."
At the state Republican Party headquarters in Jefferson City, Sloca too suggests that Bush will prosper in Missouri if the economy booms. But he sees the president's personality as a hook to win over voters regardless of the unemployment rate or the Dow Jones Industrial Average.
"The legacy left by Bill Clinton ensures that the character of the president plays an important role for voters -- and it will for some time to come," Sloca said.
Putting down his sandwich to make his point more emphatically, 55-year-old banker Ron Cawood seconded the thought. "What do we have with Bush in office? We have honesty, for one thing. Honesty and a whole lot more integrity than we've had in the White House for a long time."