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ST. LOUIS, Mo. - In a parallel universe, Missouri is a contested presidential battleground state, the Democratic National Committee selects the River City to host its 2012 presidential nominating convention and Sen. Claire McCaskill uses the convention to showcase her marquee re-election race on a national stage.
In our universe, President Barack Obama is not investing seriously in Missouri, a state he lost by the narrowest margin of the 2008 campaign. Instead of the Democratic National Convention, the North American Trailer Dealers Association is meeting at the America's Center Convention Complex in St. Louis. And McCaskill drops by watch parties for the president's Thursday speech at the Royale Tavern and the Moolah Theater in St. Louis, after a week of traveling to college towns such as Columbia, Fulton, Kirksville, Maryville and Warrensburg to talk to students about her support for financial aid.
"I have had three 17-year-olds. I wouldn't loan any of them money," she told a gathering of about 70 at the student union at University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg on Thursday. It's a line she has told several of these audiences, and it gets laughs while driving home the point that she supports a continued federal role in guaranteeing grants and low-interest loans for college students. It also appeared to be a subtle shot at GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney who told Ohio students earlier this year that if they want to start a business, they should "borrow money if you have to from your parents."
The DNC passed on St. Louis, along with Cleveland, Ohio and Minneapolis, Minn., in favor of Charlotte, N.C., for its quadrennial partisan pep rally. McCaskill announced earlier in the summer that she would be staying put in Missouri during the convention. Observers speculated she was trying to distance herself from Obama. She dismissed that line of thought, telling media outlets she had skipped conventions before when she was engaged in tough races, such as the 2004 convention in Boston, when she was running for governor.
And her comments to students this week have largely been mirrored by the national party in Charlotte. In Obama's speech Thursday, when he accepted the Democratic Party's nomination for president, he said of education: "It is the gateway to a middle-class life." That's a statement right out of McCaskill's stump speech to university communities this week.
While McCaskill's swing through college towns has been heavy on discussion of the federal government's role in education policy, the students have pressed her on the contours of her re-election race as well.
Asked by Westminster College senior Mylhan Myers why polling shows the race is still close, even after her opponent, GOP Rep. Todd Akin, made his contentious statement last month regarding "legitimate rape," McCaskill said, simply, "because Missouri is a very, very close state."
The races for the seat McCaskill occupies certainly have been close.