POPLAR BLUFF — The standing ovation from an overflow crowd suggested that Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill was in friendly territory. The shouts and jeers made it clear that public rancor over President Barack Obama's proposed health care overhaul remains incendiary.
The first-term senator took her message about health care reform to rural southeast Missouri on Monday, hosting town hall forums in Kennett and Poplar Bluff and meeting with county hospital workers in Hayti, one of the state's poorest communities.
The morning session at Southeast Missouri State University's Kennett campus was marked by polite dialogue and few signs of unrest. McCaskill even complimented the roughly 150 audience members for their "good Missouri manners."
The mood at Three Rivers Community College in Poplar Bluff on Monday afternoon — despite an initial warm greeting and McCaskill's leading the audience of 500 in the Pledge of Allegiance — was far different. The loudest applause came when an audience member called Obama a socialist.
Another asked loudly whether McCaskill was "going to kill our kids or not," a reference to concerns over federally funded abortions.
A third asked, "Where's the birth certificate?" alluding to claims that Obama is ineligible to be president by people who contend his birth certificate is a fake and he was actually born outside the U.S.
"You guys are so mean," a visibly frustrated McCaskill said at one point. "It's almost like I give you good news, and you're still mad at me."
The sessions come amid growing public protests over the reform plans Congress will consider when its members return to Washington next month. A public meeting in St. Louis hosted last week by Democratic Rep. Russ Carnahan ended in a melee and six arrests, including that of a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter.
The specter of those inflamed reactions was obvious Monday. Poplar Bluff police officers in plain clothes sat quietly in the audience as their uniformed colleagues stood watch on the perimeter.
McCaskill expressed disappointment over the University City school district's decision to cancel a town hall meeting scheduled for Tuesday in suburban St. Louis after the violence at the Carnahan event.
"Yeah, people have passionate feelings about this," she said. "But that's what a democracy is about."
Four of five congressional committees have approved versions of health care bills, but lawmakers fell short of Obama's deadline for the House and Senate to vote on bills before their August recess. That sets up a September showdown on the legislation.
McCaskill spent much of her time Monday trying to reassure wary constituents that the federal government won't run roughshod over the country's health care system. She challenged audience members to "take the money" of anyone who would bet that Congress will approve a single-payer system.
"There continues to be misunderstanding of the proposals and misinformation," she said.
Jamie Chitester, a 33-year-old Republican information technology manager, left the Kennett session unconvinced that a Democrat-controlled Congress can fix the U.S. health care system.
"Any government-run business of sorts is running in a deficit," he said. "I don't understand how they think they can take this over."