August 7, 2004 in Nation/World

Whistle-stop in Missouri town raucous

Jill Zuckman Chicago Tribune
Associated Press photo

Democratic presidential and vice presidential nominees John Kerry, left, and John Edwards wave to the crowd gathered Thursday at the historic Union Station in St. Louis.
(Full-size photo)

SEDALIA, Mo. – Nobody ever said campaigning like Harry Truman on the back of a train through hostile territory was going to be easy.

That’s what the Democratic candidates for president and vice president realized late Thursday as they pulled into this rural outpost and found themselves surrounded by about 2,000 politically divided voters in the pitch dark.

Holding candles, flashlights and posters, the people of Sedalia engaged in a shouting contest: Some called out “Four more years” and “We want Bush,” while their neighbors chanted, “Three more months” and “Kerry! Kerry!”

The candidates could barely get a word in.

Posters held aloft competed for attention too. There were signs that said “Give ‘em hell, Kerry” and others that simply said “W.”

And so it went in the politically uncontrolled environment of the train tracks, where anyone could come to see, hear and heckle the Democratic hopefuls as their 15-car, three-engine train rolled westward through Missouri. It was a stark contrast from the typical invitation-only campaign rally, where the local political parties usually handpick the guests, limiting the possibilities for protest.

Since 1900, Missouri has stood out as a bellwether, picking the winning candidate for president in every election except 1956. In 2000, Bush beat Vice President Al Gore here 50 percent to 47 percent.

Recent polls show that Missouri still is a tossup, but here in ragtime virtuoso Scott Joplin’s hometown of Sedalia, the politics lean a little more to the right. In 2000, Bush won 4,851 votes compared to Gore’s 3,718.

Whether the rowdy crowd surrounding the Kerry-Edwards train was any indication of how Missouri will vote this year is difficult to assess. But it provided one of the less scripted moments of the campaign season so far.

“Will you let us speak? Will you let us speak, please?” Edwards urged the Republican section of the crowd, which was trying to drown him out with boos.

“We would never shout down our opponents when they’re speaking,” Edwards said, between attempts to describe his vision for one America without states that are either “red” or “blue.”

As the Bush protesters continued to boo, Edwards asked them, “Are you guys really booing outsourcing of millions of America’s jobs and doing something about it?”

Then he tried another tactic: “My children are on this train. Show them some good Missouri manners, would you please?”

Of course, heckling is a time-honored tradition in political campaigns, designed to throw a candidate off balance. On Monday in Milwaukee, Kerry responded to protesters by calling them “goons,” and his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, said they want “four more years of hell.”

Four days later, the candidates seemed better prepared for their opponents.

“Hello, hello, Missouri,” Heinz Kerry said to the crowd. “Hello, hello. I would like to say to all of you, if Laura Bush were here, I would say hello politely to her.”

Kerry himself had better luck telling the crowd that he would be a champion for the middle class, that he would provide health care to all Americans and that he would keep nearby Whiteman Air Force Base open for business as he strengthens the military.

Still, the crowd began to chant for Bush as the Massachusetts Democrat tried to tell them about his vision for brighter, more hopeful days. And then the Kerry supporters began to chant back.

“Let them chant, ladies and gentlemen, because they only have three more months to chant,” Kerry said. “They don’t want to hear the truth.”

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