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.
In 2006, McCaskill beat Sen. Jim Talent, 50-47. In 2002, Talent beat Sen. Jean Carnahan, 50-49. In 2000, Carnahan was appointed to the seat after Sen. John Ashcroft was defeated 51-48, by her late husband, Mel Carnahan, whose name had remained on the ballot after his death in a plane crash.
Even so, Myers, who identified himself as "very conservative" said he was "disappointed" in her answer. He said he believes the real reason the race is so close is that McCaskill voted for the 2010 health care reform law, which is unpopular with many Missourians. When Myers, who was wearing an athletic T-shirt from his home town of Rolla, was informed that the Senator was born in Rolla, he expressed surprise. "I had no idea," he said, adding, "Rolla doesn't exactly claim her."
Two days later in Warrensburg, McCaskill was asked about her vote for the Affordable Care Act and said she still supported it, saying it was the product of compromise and that "I do think it will work." However, she said it was still difficult to get out the word on the positive aspects of the law. "People are clinging to misinformation ... like a life raft," she said.
Any way McCaskill can cut into Republican margins in central Missouri is key to her re-election prospects. Generally in statewide elections here, Democrats do very well in metro Kansas City and St. Louis and struggle in other regions of the state. McCaskill's success in being elected statewide three times, twice as state auditor and once as Senator, has hinged on running well in the cities and getting closer in everyplace else. And the more students who support her in places such as Fulton or Maryville, the easier her task.
"Get involved. Volunteer. We need you," she told the Westminster crowd, as she did others. And she warned against any complacency among her supporters. "Don't let anyone tell you that this race will be anything but close," she said in Warrensburg.
Given her attention to the race, the call to skip Charlotte was likely an easy one. Instead of swapping campaign war stories and lapel pins, McCaskill went hunting for votes.
Whether the national stage that a convention in St. Louis would have helped her more is impossible to know now. Other Senate candidates in tough races, such as Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts and Rep. Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin, used the platform to not only sing the president's praises but also to make their own case for election.
Other Democrats, particularly those planning logistics, can only be left to wonder how the River City in Missouri would have compared to North Carolina's Queen City as a convention host.
The prospect of stormy weather in Charlotte eventually forced Democrats to move Obama's nominating speech from Bank of America Stadium, home of the NFL's Carolina Panthers, indoors to the Time Warner Cable Arena, a smaller and less grand venue.
It's unlikely North America Trailer Dealers Association President Andy Ackerman ever entertained addressing his organization's trade show in the Edward Jones Dome, the indoor football stadium home of the NFL's St. Louis Rams that is adjacent to the America's Center complex. But if he had, any Missouri rain in the forecast would not have been a factor.