LAKE OZARK — Missouri Democrats united behind President Barack Obama at their state convention Saturday, expressing both concern and confidence about his ability to withstand a challenge from Republican Mitt Romney in an election could that hinge on voters' perceptions of the economy.
A smaller, less rambunctious group gathered at the Lake of the Ozarks this year, lending itself to a more relaxed, efficient convention compared to four years ago, when Obama was still battling with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. This year's Democrats were unified in their support for a trio of top-of-the-ticket incumbents for president, U.S. senator and governor.
Although he easily won nationally, Obama narrowly lost Missouri in 2008 to Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona. And so far in 2012, the president has not mounted a much of a push in the state — there are nine key states where Obama is running TV ads, and Missouri is not one of them.
Yet Democrats contend that Missouri's historical swing-state status will be as strong as ever this November — partly because Sen. Claire McCaskill's re-election bid is expected to be one of the most closely contested nationally as Republicans seek to wrest control of the Senate away from Democrats.
"We are the bellwether of bellwethers; we are going to decide which way the U.S. Senate goes," Democratic Party Chairman Mike Sanders told convention delegates Saturday.
McCaskill did not attend the convention, choosing to stay in St. Louis with her ailing mother after campaigning at an earlier union event.
"Pray for her and fight for me," McCaskill said in a video shown at the convention.
Several other elected Democratic officials also were absent for a variety of reasons.
The convention drew 434 delegates, less than half of the 1,036 that could have come. But the atmosphere was less tense than in 2008, when supporters of Obama and Clinton were identified by blue and red badges and split into two camps by a waist-high railing and a ceiling-to-floor curtain. Back then, when one side stood to applaud, the other often remained seated.
This year, even the former Clinton supporters were behind Obama.
"I think he inherited an extremely dicey situation for our country. I give him relatively high marks," said Gene Scott, 60, a former Franklin County presiding commissioner who, as chairman of the Clinton caucus in 2008, had shooed away eavesdropping Obama backers at a congressional district meeting.
Retired school teacher Dora Meier of Licking, who backed Obama at the 2008 state convention, said this year's party gathering lacked the same level of enthusiasm — though she gladly exchanged it for the greater unity. Meier acknowledged that she is "kind of scared" about Obama's prospects against Romney because of the nation's jobless rate.
"He hasn't accomplished all the things he promised," Meier, 72, said of Obama. "I think people are expecting miracles. I think we need to give him more time."
The unity at this year's state Democratic convention stood in contrast with the state Republican Convention held last weekend in Springfield. Attendees there were divided among supporters of Romney and Texas Congressman Ron Paul, with the backers of former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum providing the swing votes.
Missouri Republicans ultimately awarded a majority of their delegates for the national convention to Romney, though a portion will be pledged to Santorum and a few to Paul and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich.