ST. LOUIS — U.S. Sen. Barack Obama kicked off what is essentially the first week of the general election campaign by visiting Missouri on Monday, trying to shore up support in a bellwether state where his razor-thin victory during the Democratic primary campaign might signal a tough fight against Republican U.S. Sen. John McCain.
Obama was set to appear at a closed high-end fundraiser Monday night, before making campaign stops in the St. Louis area Tuesday. Republicans began criticizing the presumptive nominee hours before he arrived in the state, with Gov. Matt Blunt holding a morning news conference to attack Obama’s credentials and economic plans.
Although Missouri voted for George Bush in 2000 and 2004, there are signs the state could be a battleground in 2008 as voters increasingly shift away from Republican candidates, said Ken Warren, a political science professor at Saint Louis University.
In 2006, for example, Republican incumbent Sen. Jim Talent lost his seat to Democrat Claire McCaskill as voters nationwide pushed Democrats into the majority in Congress. McCaskill has since endorsed Obama and campaigned for him statewide.
“I think anyone can win Missouri, and that’s one of the reasons Obama is here,” Warren said.
Recent polls show McCain and Obama in a virtual tie among Missouri voters, Warren said. Candidates usually fight hard to win over Missouri voters because they tend to reflect national trends, having picked every successful presidential candidate in the last 100 years, except for the 1956 race, Warren said.
The McCain campaign is trying to exploit Obama’s narrow primary victory over Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in February. Campaign spokesman Jeff Sadosky said McCain will try to appeal to independent voters and disappointed Clinton supporters.
“John McCain is the type of Republican that can appeal beyond party lines because of his record and the credibility he has,” Sadosky said. “I think looking nationally, what you’ve seen is that there is a Democratic party that is clearly divided.”
An Obama campaign spokeswoman did not return messages seeking comment Monday.
Warren said the Democratic Party already appears to be uniting behind Obama, with Clinton urging her supporters Saturday to back his candidacy. Warren said Obama’s close primary victory doesn’t necessarily mean he won’t get strong support from Missouri Democrats.
“Democrats who say they’re going to vote for John McCain, we know from history that that kind of thing is silly,” he said.
During his morning news conference, Blunt tried to undermine Obama’s campaign theme of bringing change to Washington. Blunt painted Obama as a classic big-tax liberal and even compared him unfavorably to Republican President Herbert Hoover because of Obama’s desire to limit free trade.
“His change is truly change we can’t afford,” Blunt said.