Amid the stuffed toy donkeys, primary colors and ample campaign paraphernalia covering Columbia’s Expo Center on Friday and Saturday were Missouri Democrats on a mission to make it a blue Super Tuesday come November.
“We have a president who is not leading this country in the right direction,” said former presidential candidate and U.S. Rep. Richard Gephardt, who addressed members at the state party’s convention Saturday.
Close to 2,000 people from across Missouri gathered for the convention to choose 16 at-large delegates, for a total of 88 delegates, to attend the party’s national convention in July.
Missouri is a crucial battleground state for electoral and swing votes: President Bush visited Missouri six times between 2001 and 2003. The fight for the state showed in the anticipatory atmosphere at the convention, which almost seemed to overcome partygoers at times, including Gephardt, who joked in his speech that he was almost “nostalgic for Ronald Reagan.”
Gephardt’s tongue-in-cheek jibe was well-received by the delegation, who leapt to their feet several times and cheered. It was an almost perfect yet bittersweet end to the 26-year-veteran representative’s presidential candidacy, which ended in January after he was defeated at the Iowa caucuses.
Like other speakers who addressed the delegation, Gephardt graciously complimented Sen. John Kerry and strongly reinforced the idea of getting everyone on the same page to win the elections come fall.
But that unity is something the state party must work hard to maintain. At the party’s Friday pep rally, State Auditor Claire McCaskill stood outside of the gathering hall and chatted with delegates instead of entering to join other party leaders, including Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, who spoke to the delegation that evening and presented the party with a $10,000 check.
McCaskill, who’s challenging incumbent Democrat Gov. Bob Holden, released a statement Thursday saying she was being excluded from formal convention proceedings on Saturday because of her candidacy.
“The party has declined to give me an opportunity to speak at the convention,” McCaskill said. “I’m not angry, but the party apparatus is being used for Governor Holden. I just wanted the delegates to understand it was not my choice not to be there.”
Despite McCaskill’s charges, Holden spokeswoman Mary Still said she didn’t understand the problem. While McCaskill was not on the list of speakers for Saturday, Still said the Friday pep rally was open to any and all Democratic candidates who wanted to speak to the delegation.
While most of the walls at the pep rally were flanked with “Holden for Governor” signs, much of the crowd conversed independently for some time as the governor talked about his accomplishments and his intent to take the reins away from the Republican-controlled General Assembly. Yet when Holden spoke to the entire delegation formally on Saturday, the inattention he had received the night before seemed to dissipate. He was greeted with stomps, hollers and cheers by a significant number in the crowd.
Despite interparty conflict, the Democrats are keeping their goals in sight, said State Treasurer Nancy Farmer, who’s challenging incumbent Republican Sen. Kit Bond this fall.
“We are totally focused on what we need to get done.”