SPRINGFIELD — Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama stepped into traditionally Republican territory Thursday on a trek across southern Missouri.
Obama stressed economic issues at a town hall forum in Springfield, appealing to the pocketbooks of people in a region where hearts and votes have been hard to get for Democrats. He was to hold another town-hall event later in Rolla before concluding the day with an evening barbecue in Union.
Not since 1964 has a Democratic presidential candidate carried Greene County, the home of Springfield, the largest city in southwest Missouri's historically Republican area.
But tickets to Obama's event were hot items.
The roughly 1,500 tickets for his appearance at Springfield's Glendale High School gymnasium were snapped up in about an hour, a campaign spokeswoman said, and a long line snaked the school parking lot hours before Wednesday morning's event. In Rolla, about 2,000 people lined up for tickets in 90-degree heat a day before the event, about 600 of whom were turned away when the tickets ran out, Phelps County Democrats President Janet McKean told the Rolla Daily News.
While Obama stumped in Missouri's Republican areas, GOP presidential candidate John McCain was to hold a fundraiser Wednesday night in Kansas City, a traditionally Democratic area. Both candidates have come to Missouri several times since they each narrowly won Missouri's presidential primaries in February.
Missouri, historically, is a bellwether. It has voted for the winning presidential candidate in every election except one in the past 100 years.
When recent Missouri Democrats have won in statewide elections, they have done so by cutting into their losing margins in rural and southwest Missouri while carrying the urban areas of St. Louis and Kansas City.
That's the path followed by Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, who traveled in an RV throughout rural Missouri when she unseated Republican Jim Talent two years ago. McCaskill, an Obama backer, has urged him to follow her lead.
She introduced him in Springfield by reaching out to social conservatives.
"They say that he's arrogant, that he's unpatriotic. Blah, blah, blah, blah," McCaskill said. "I know this man. He is humble, he is devoutly Christian, he loves his family more than anything else in the world, he cares about family, he reveres our men and women in uniform, and he is as red, white and blue as you can possibly get."
During a rousing introductory ovation, a man in the audience yelled to Obama: "Thank you for coming."
"You're welcome," he replied.
Southwest Missouri is generally more white than Missouri's urban areas, and its Bible Belt voters have generally valued opposition to abortion and gay marriage while praising gun rights and denouncing taxes.
McCain's co-chairman in Missouri, former state Rep. Jack Jackson, played up those themes as he led a few more than a dozen protesters outside Obama's rally in Springfield. He doubted a majority of rural Missourians would vote for Obama.
"They'll listen to him; they'll smile at him," Jackson said. "But talk's cheap. They want to know what you're really made of down here. He may communicate well, but what he stands for does not resonate in the southwest part of this state."
Obama's message about alternative energy sources and tax breaks for the middle class at the exclusion of wealthier residents drew large applause in Springfield.
"They're going to try to make you scared of me: He's not patriotic enough, he's got a funny name, he doesn't look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills," Obama told the crowd. "He's risky; that's the argument."
Obama added: "We are in a time right now where it is too risky not to change."
As part of his rural emphasis, Obama announced last week that he's opening two dozen offices across Missouri, including many in small towns that don't typically have a presidential campaign presence.
McCain should have about 10 offices open in Missouri by mid-August, a spokeswoman said Wednesday.
Obama and McCain both lost large swaths of rural Missouri in February's primaries. So Obama's presence here is particularly important as he tries to reach out to some Hillary Clinton supporters who may consider switching to McCain, said political scientist George Connor of Missouri State University.
Still, Obama's unlikely to make inroads with many Republicans, Connor added.
"As much as he's trying to nudge himself to the center, he's pretty far left of the average southwest Missouri voter," Connor said. "I don't see him winning converts here."
But Obama may be able to tap into some new voters. Twenty-four-year-old professional poker player Daniel Haase, for example, said he's never voted before. But the Springfield resident was wearing an Obama sticker Wednesday and vowed to cast a ballot for the first time.
He was sitting with Holly Ragan, 22, a Springfield native now serving in the Peace Corps in Nicaragua who voted for President Bush four years ago largely because of her family's Republican background. Now, she also is backing Obama.
"I feel like change would be a good thing," she said.
Former Missouri Democratic Party Chairman Joe Carmichael, a Springfield attorney, said this could be the year that a Democratic presidential candidate either carries southwest Missouri or at least cuts into the GOP advantage enough to eke out a win in the state, based on the strength of Democratic strongholds in St. Louis and Kansas City.
Carmichael, who helped host a roughly $250,000 fundraiser for Obama on Tuesday night in Springfield, rests his hopes on Obama's communication skills and the excitement for change that seems to follow his campaign.
"A lot of times we've had difficulty reaching independents and Republicans in the Ozarks because we couldn't get around some of the hot-button issues. We couldn't talk about health care because of the constant barrage on abortion," Carmichael said. "He's someone who can get us past some of the hot-button issues."