There seemed to be few undecided voters among the 15,000 people who greeted President Bush with loud cheers Tuesday afternoon at the Boone County Fairgrounds.
Among signs reading “Leadership for the Heartland,” Bush delivered a speech highlighting domestic issues such as health care and the war on terrorism to an overwhelmingly supportive crowd. Pauses in the speech were filled by enthusiastic chants of “four more years.”
“I’m really not out here to be swayed because I’m already that way,” said James Lee, a 73-year-old retiree from Columbia.
The president kept to the letter of a speech delivered throughout his two days of touring Missouri by bus, a campaign trip that included stops in Poplar Bluff, Lee’s Summit and Sedalia.
Addressing the crowd from a podium adorned mid-Missouri style with tan horse saddles, Western prints and bales of hay, Bush spoke about creating jobs, leading the war on terror and improving health care through tort reform.
“These frivolous lawsuits against our docs are making it harder for good doctors to practice medicine, and they’re running up the cost of your health care,” Bush said.
Clyde Reeves, a retired 66-year-old from Harrisburg, said the whole health-care system for seniors must improve.
“Someone needs to get a handle on this health insurance,” Reeves said. “It’s clear out of reach for the average person.”
The president also discussed his plan to reform the federal tax code, which he called “a complicated mess,” and he criticized what he called the changing positions of Democratic nominee John Kerry on the war in Iraq.
Supporters waved signs and pompoms, cheering loudly throughout the rally. Country music entertained the crowd during brief intermissions. Bush’s speech was preceded by remarks from several Missouri Republicans, including gubernatorial candidate and Secretary of State Matt Blunt and Ninth District U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof.
Bush’s appearance caused a ripple effect throughout Columbia. Drivers heading for the fairgrounds were caught in traffic along U.S. 63 and had to stop when the president’s motorcade passed. The traffic jam kept some ticket-holders, such as Cliff and Rebecca Johnson, away from the rally.
The Johnsons came all the way from Jefferson City only to get stuck in traffic near U.S. 63 and Interstate 70. They stood along I-70 and watched the motorcade drive by. Cliff Johnson took pictures while Rebecca waved.
“I would have rather seen him in person,” Cliff Johnson said. “But it was worth it.”
For some, getting to the fairgrounds on time meant having their cars towed. Matt Gowin of Fulton had to pay $100 to retrieve his car, which was towed from the side of U.S. 63. He said tow-truck drivers told him about 70 cars were pulled from the sides of the highway.
“The event itself was good, but getting to it and from it was poor at best,” Gowin said.
MU political science professor Rick Hardy also got stuck in traffic. Hardy has seen the president before, though, and even had him speak to his class in 1988.
For those who haven’t seen Bush or John Kerry, there is still hope.
“Look for Missouri to be a well-traveled state by the end of the election,” Hardy said.
Bush has visited Missouri 21 times while president. Eight of those visits took place this year.
One reason the rally crowd was so partisan is that those seeking tickets had to profess their support for both the Republican Party and the president but were not forced to sign a loyalty oath as past Bush campaign rallies required.
A group of MU students who sought tickets at the Bush-Cheney headquarters on Providence Road reported being asked, “Are you Republicans?” and “Do you support Bush?” Only one of five students said yes and got tickets. The others, who said they were undecided voters, were turned away.
“I found it strange that in a swing state Bush only wanted to address his supporters,” said MU junior Annie Getsinger. “How is he going to convince anyone to vote for him with his message if undecided voters don’t have an opportunity to hear him speak?”
About 75 protesters gathered outside the fairgrounds, holding signs encouraging the end of the Iraqi occupation and passing out fake pink slips that cited Bureau of Labor Statistics that say 23,000 Missourians lost their jobs in July.
“We are going downhill spiritually, economically and environmentally,” said Joan Wibbenmeyer, a 49-year-old Columbia woman participating in the protest. “The Republican Party has assumed moral and patriotic superiority that is completely unfounded. For example, it’s Christian to not hurt others, but we just bomb and bomb and bomb.”
According to RealClearPolitics.com, a Web site monitoring political polls, Bush had a slight advantage in late-August polls conducted in Missouri. Bush was the choice of 48 percent of respondents, with Kerry at 45.6. Margins of error ranged from 3.4 to 5 percentage points.
Nationally, Bush got a 2 percent bounce after last week’s Republican National Convention, according to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, the first to be conducted after Bush accepted the nomination. In that poll, Bush lead Kerry 52 percent to 45 percent among likely voters. The margin of error was 3.5 percent, reflecting a virtual tie.
Bush has raised about three times as much money as Kerry in Missouri. The Democratic candidate has collected more than $1.1 million; Bush is a little short of $3.4 million.
After his speech, Bush’s motorcade traveled down U.S. 63 to Columbia Regional Airport, where he boarded his plane after pausing to wave at photographers from the local media.
Any plane carrying the president is called Air Force One, but the aircraft Bush boarded Tuesday was not one of the two modified 747 models typically known by that name. The plane that left Columbia around 5 p.m., 15 minutes ahead of schedule, was a smaller jet with a paint job similar to that of its larger cousins.
Political analysts have emphasized Missouri’s role in presidential elections. State voters closely mirror national demographics and have picked the winning presidential candidate in every election but 1956, when Dwight Eisenhower won re-election by a landslide.
Missourian reporters Cristian Lupsa, Lindy Bavolek, Kristin Hayden, Jacob Luecke, Angad Nagra, Jonathan Rivoli, Bernell Dorrough, Kathryn Posch and Brendan Watson contributed to this report.