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THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

The Town With the Answer Is Undecided

Liberty, Mo., has a history of picking presidents. And at the moment, it's divided right down the middle.

March 14, 2004|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

LIBERTY, Mo. — When pondering the prospect of picking the next president, voter Barbara Lozier was once a self-described ABBie (Anybody But Bush). But now the 47-year-old businesswoman is rethinking the wisdom of choosing a candidate out of mere anger.

If she's tired of the Texan, the man from Massachusetts remains a mystery.

She wonders whether Sen. John F. Kerry is strong enough to beat President Bush on his own merits, "without the boost of the anti-Bush vote." Says Lozier: "I don't know yet."

This historic Midwestern hamlet is at the epicenter of the brewing political battle over the White House. Liberty is a typical small town in a state that both the Bush and Kerry campaigns say could tip the scale of a close election. And eight months before voters go to the polls, the place is still up for grabs.

In a community equally divided between Democrats and Republicans, many voters are disenchanted with both Bush's inability to create jobs and U.S. troops' lingering deployment in Iraq. But they're also scratching their heads over apparent contradictions in Kerry's personal resume and his public voting record as a U.S. senator.

Many question how a Vietnam War hero awarded three Purple Hearts could distinguish himself in battle and then return home to criticize his country's role in the conflict, as Kerry did in 1971. Or, they ask, did he seek to slash intelligence spending in 1995, two years after the first terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York, as Bush claimed in a speech last week?

Outside name recognition, Kerry largely remains an enigma to voters here; they know little of his personal past or public voting record. Republicans are primed to fill in the blanks: They've cranked up a mammoth national advertising machine to caricature him as another cartoon-like New England liberal who's weak on defense and incapable of making up his mind on critical issues.

Kerry's challenge, experts say, is to keep control of his own public image among voters.

Especially in a state like Missouri, which knows how to pick presidents. The Show-Me State has chosen a winner in every election since 1900 except 1956, when it went for Adlai Stevenson over Dwight Eisenhower.

"Missouri's record in choosing presidents is no fluke," says University of Missouri political scientist David Robertson. "Its borders touch every region. It reflects the nation's racial makeup and its economy, from agriculture to the auto industry. It's a snapshot of America."

Liberty is itself a national bellwether. The picturesque town, a Kansas City suburb settled in 1817 as a Missouri River frontier post, has picked the winner in every presidential election after 1960, when it preferred Richard Nixon to John F. Kennedy.

Novice voter Dana Cunningham has no such history, but she is still sure still of her instincts.

"The only thing I know about John Kerry is that I don't like George Bush," says Cunningham, 21, a waitress at a combination mystery bookstore and cafe called Sherlock's Home. "What more do I need to know?"

Plenty, says Doug Bratcher. He calls Kerry "a waffler who just can't get his mind right."

"Maybe I'm just a dumb hillbilly or maybe he's not explaining it right, but I don't have the slightest idea where he stands on anything," says Bratcher, who builds oak barrels. Kerry, he says, is no substitute for a president with proven governing skills.

"Some folks here would rather vote for the Missouri mule than President Bush," says Bratcher. "You ask them why and they'll tell you they hate Bush. But that's not enough, at least not for me. This Kerry character is an unknown. He's just one big question mark."

Bratcher, with his denim overalls and cow-catcher white beard, has a workshop located near the quaint storefronts of Liberty's historic central square. He's proud that the town of 26,000 was once known as Little Dixie and that Missouri was a Civil War-era slave state -- so much so that he hangs a Confederate flag in his shop.

Residents didn't fly Old Glory over the courthouse until 1912, he says, because of lingering resentment over "the damage those Yankee soldiers did" while occupying local William Jewell College in the 1860s.

Liberty now promotes its brick bank -- once robbed by Jesse James -- more than its Confederate history. But the town still identifies with its Southern roots, and voters here say this year's presidential campaign may be viewed as a choice between an elitist Northerner and a good-old-boy Southerner.

An upscale Clay County seat populated by a mix of lawyers, doctors and college professors, Liberty also has become a popular bedroom community for Kansas City commuters.

The community boasts excellent schools, safe streets and an unemployment rate that's less than 4%, thanks to such major employers as the nearby Ford Motor Co. plant and a distribution center for Hallmark cards.

Clay County Eastern District Commissioner Craig Porter says the community has mostly held onto its jobs, unlike some other areas of the country.

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