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Bush pitches in to rouse GOP voters in Missouri

Times Staff Writer

Midway through a six-day blitz of campaign rallies, President Bush on Friday stopped in this heartland state that has become ground zero in the Republicans’ attempt to retain control of the Senate.

Buoyed by encouraging news on the economy, Bush was greeted with cheers and applause as he took the stage -- joined by two Missouri Republicans, Rep. Roy Blunt and Sen. Jim Talent -- at the Springfield Exposition Center. White House political strategist Karl Rove mixed with the crowd, posing for photographs with volunteers.

Even as polls show the political landscape has shifted in the Democrats’ favor because of the war in Iraq, the mood here was reminiscent of the 2002 midterm campaign, when a last-minute tour by Bush helped the Republicans gain seats in Congress.

But the president made it clear that this was not 2002, nor even 2004. This year, he is being forced to campaign not only for congressional candidates but for a slew of beleaguered Republican governors. He told the crowds here that Talent and other Republicans were waging “a national campaign that will determine our future.”

Polls this week showed Talent, a first-term incumbent, in a tight race with his Democratic challenger, state Auditor Claire McCaskill. A Zogby International poll last month showed McCaskill leading 46% to 43%, and a Rasmussen poll released Thursday showed her ahead by 1 percentage point.

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The outcome of this race could decide the balance of power in Washington.

“With your hard work in the next four days, you’ll elect Jim Talent to the Senate, we’ll keep control of the House and we’ll keep control of the Senate,” Bush said, eliciting a chorus of “Amen” and “That’s right.”

Both Talent and McCaskill are relying on big names to spur turnout. Talent hosted former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani at a Thursday rally in Independence. McCaskill is due to appear in St. Louis on Sunday with Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, a rising Democratic star.

On Friday, Bush was in full campaign mode -- sleeves rolled up, leading call-and-response exchanges with crowds at Missouri Southern State University in Joplin and at a rally in Le Mars, Iowa, for Rep. Jim Nussle, a gubernatorial candidate, and Rep. Steve King. Each rally drew thousands of cheering supporters.

The fact that Bush has had to devote last-minute campaign time to Nussle and gubernatorial candidates in Arkansas, Nevada, Florida and even Texas is a sign of trouble, said Phil Musser, executive director of the Republican Governors Assn. Of 36 governors’ races, 13 are Republican incumbents and nine are open seats that were formerly Republican, he noted.

“The math is terrible for our party,” Musser said. “You start out with the worst hand you could be dealt.”

As he has at other recent rallies, Bush argued Friday that Republicans will better protect the country from terrorism and promote economic growth. “Tax cuts have led to a strong and growing economy, and this morning we got more proof of that: The national unemployment rate has dropped to 4.4%,” Bush said. “That is the lowest rate in 5 1/2 years.”

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco issued a retort: “While we are glad there is some good news for the American people, this jobs report does not fundamentally change the fact that President Bush’s handling of the economy is not good for America’s middle-income families. The president has the worst jobs record since the Great Depression.”

Addressing undecided voters, Bush brought up the war in Iraq, detainee interrogation and domestic spying programs that congressional Democrats have opposed without offering alternatives, he said.

“If you happen to bump into a Democrat candidate, you might want to ask this simple question: What’s your plan?” he said, and within a few moments had the crowd here shouting along with him: “What’s your plan?”

Bush’s visit may help, but for Talent to win on Tuesday he will have to rally his Republican base. In 2002, he won statewide by about 21,000 votes out of about 1.9 million cast.

That included Ben McBride, 25, a student at Central Bible College in Springfield. McBride voted for Talent, and for Bush -- twice. But this time, he said, he’s changing his vote.

McBride, like some other conservatives here, said he felt the Republican Party has been a disappointment to evangelicals.

“I’ve been a pretty die-hard Republican for years,” McBride said as he stood outside the rally here with some friends. But now, “I’m just sort of disillusioned.”

molly.hennessy-fiske@

latimes.com


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