HERMITAGE — Recently retired, Floyd and Gail Worley aren't supposed to be worried about the economy. They have no jobs to lose, after all. But low interest rates and falling stock prices have put their retirement savings in jeopardy.
So is the economy an important factor in their choice for president?
"Heavens yes. That's the big deal," says Gail Worley, 63. "We're retired right now. It depends on the economy whether we're going to stay retired or not."
In the traditional swing state of Missouri, the economy is shaping up as the swing issue of the November presidential election. As the nation's financial crisis has worsened, polls that once showed an advantage for Republican John McCain now show him essentially even in Missouri with Democrat Barack Obama.
The economy is complicating Missouri's conventional political wisdom, which says that while Democrats routinely lock down voters in the heavily populated urban centers of Kansas City and St. Louis, Republicans reign across rural Missouri - wiping away and often overcoming the Democrats' big-city advantage.
But to sustain that small-town grip, McCain needs the support of skeptical Republican-leaning voters such as the Worleys. And Obama needs to do well in places such as their home of Hickory County, which has the highest unemployment rate in a state with its highest jobless rate since 1991.
The news got worse Friday: The Petit Jean chicken processing plant in neighboring Dallas County shut down, laying off 465 employees.
With fewer than 10,000 residents in west-central Missouri, Hickory County is not a natural presidential battleground. The candidates don't visit; their campaigns don't even put up many signs.
But the economic themes of the presidential race are amplified here, where the rolling woodlands occasionally break for cattle ranches. There are no big private-sector employees, essentially no industry and no large retailers. Need a man's shirt? Try the next county over, says the presiding county commissioner.
Young people generally leave for jobs elsewhere, which is part of the reason why Hickory County has the oldest population in Missouri. Many of those who remain must commute a county or two away for work. With gas consistently above $3 a gallon, that cuts substantially into their paychecks.
Hickory County's unemployment rate was at 10.2 percent in July, the latest month for which county-level figures are available.
"I would strongly suspect that some of our people have said, ‘I can stay at home and draw my unemployment and be ahead of what it costs for me to go to work everyday,'" said Presiding County Commissioner Kent Parson.
The biggest thing Hickory County has going for it is tourism and retirement. A dirt race track draws weekend crowds in the summer. Pomme de Terre Lake, opened by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1961, attracts retirees, fisherman and campers. But tourism has been down, too - partly because of the economy, partly because of flooding this year.
The newly built 37-room Clearlight Inn near the lake ran out of money before it could pave its gravel parking lot. The local owners based their business plan on selling out for two dozen Fridays and Saturdays during the summer. But they fell at least a third short of that in their first year, said co-owner Charla Lear.
"It's just real scary," Lear said. "We're hoping the economy breaks and trying to see what happens with the election."
Lear has placed her hope in Obama's change-themed campaign.
"I don't want more of the same," she said. "So I can't believe people are even considering voting Republican. I can't imagine people are even thinking of continuing on the way we are."
Public opinion polls have shown Missourians view Obama as more trustworthy than McCain when it comes to handling the economy. A pair of media polls conducted in the past two weeks both showed Obama and McCain about even in Missouri - in contrast to a slight lead enjoyed earlier by McCain.
But Obama faces some noneconomic hurdles in the traditionally Republican parts of rural Missouri, where there's a general distrust of government, a general dislike of taxes, an affinity for guns and strong anti-abortion sentiments.
Missouri has a reputation as a bellwether because it has cast its electoral votes for the winning presidential candidate in every election except one (1956) in the past 100 years.
But political scientist Terry Jones, of the University of Missouri-St. Louis, casts doubt on the state's bellwether status, noting that President Bush had higher victory margins in Missouri than in the national popular vote. Jones believes Missouri now tilts slightly toward Republicans.
Consequently, McCain cannot win the presidency if he cannot win Missouri, Jones said. But it's possible that Obama could become president even while losing Missouri, he added.
Even among those concerned about the economy, Obama faces some challenges in rural Missouri.
Eric Turner, a 30-year-old mobile home salesman and cattle hand in Hickory County, wants a president who will help lower gas prices, keep interest rates affordable and support policies "for the working man." He's leaning toward McCain, but not because he thinks McCain is any better in those areas than Obama.
"To be honest with you, it's his name (Obama). I feel like we're kind of putting someone in there from Iraq," Turner said. "I shouldn't judge him like that, but I do, and I know a lot of other people do."
Obama tried to address those doubts during a summertime swing through southern Missouri, telling a crowd in Rolla: "Nobody thinks that Bush or McCain have a real answer for the challenges we face. So what they are going to try to do is make you scared of me. You know, he's not patriotic enough, he's got a funny name, you know, he doesn't look like all of those other presidents on the dollar bills."
To take Missouri, Obama doesn't need to win rural counties, but simply narrow his loss margins there while racking up sizable advantages in St. Louis and Kansas City.
"I think we're going to do better in rural areas than our (Democrat) nominees have done in recent elections," said David Axelrod, Obama senior campaign strategist. "We're reaching a lot of them, and we're going to reach more with this message of economic change."
McCain also has been stressing the economy in Missouri. On his way to the Senate this past week to vote for a $700 billion financial bailout measure, McCain made a hastily arranged stop at the Truman Presidential Library and Museum to deliver an economic speech. During a Thursday debate in St. Louis, vice presidential running mate Sarah Palin described their campaign as a "ticket that wants to create jobs and bolster our economy."
But McCain's Missouri co-chairman, Jack Jackson, said the economy may not be the ticket for a McCain victory in the state.
"I think the economy is going to play down after this bailout," Jackson said, "and people are going to stand up in the morning and say, ‘Where does he stand on the war, does he support my son or daughter or a veteran who has already served? Is he pro-life, which a majority of Missourians are? Does he support the Second Amendment?"'
For now, though, those issues are secondary to the economy for voters such as Gail and Floyd Worley, the recently retired couple concerned about their financial security.
Gail Worley, who has a history of voting Republican, said she will probably back McCain as "the lesser of the two evils" and because of a poor gut feeling about Obama. Her husband seemed a little more noncommittal.
"I really don't want Obama, but I really don't know if I want another Republican," Floyd Worley said.