KENNETT, Mo. — By her own admission, Claire McCaskill did not spend enough time campaigning in rural Missouri two years ago, when she narrowly lost the governorship to Republican Matt Blunt.
This year, as the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate challenging GOP incumbent Jim Talent, McCaskill is making up for lost time. She's barnstorming down country roads in a bright blue RV, stopping in small towns such as this one, the birthplace of singer Sheryl Crow.
"A lot of it is sending a message to rural Missouri that ... I want to try hard to get their support," McCaskill said after shaking hands with seemingly every moving object at the Delta Fair.
Her ability to win votes in rural Missouri may determine whether she topples Talent. More broadly, it probably will signal whether Democrats can overcome the principal obstacle in their drive for a Senate majority: the Republican dominance of Senate seats in states that President Bush carried in 2000 and 2004.
To gain the majority, Democrats must win at least four, and maybe more, GOP-held seats in red states such as Missouri. Recent polls have buoyed their hopes. Democrats are running about even with or slightly ahead of Republicans in each of the hotly contested red-state Senate races except Arizona's.
From disenchantment over the Iraq war to the sex scandal surrounding former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), a national tide may be gathering behind Democrats. But for Republicans, the red states loom as the sea wall against that force.
Election day will decide whether discontent over the nation's direction overrides entrenched GOP advantages, especially among rural voters, in these culturally conservative states.
One of the most powerful trends in U.S. politics has been the growing alignment between the way states vote in presidential and Senate elections.
In the past, states often would support one party for president while sending members of the other party to Washington as one or both of their senators. But in a highly polarized era, more voters are supporting Senate candidates who are in the same party as their choice for president.
The GOP holds three-quarters of the Senate seats from the 29 states that twice voted for Bush for president. Democrats hold about three-quarters of the Senate seats from the 18 states that voted for Al Gore in 2000 and John F. Kerry in 2004.
Democrats need a net gain of six seats to win the Senate. Only two of their top targets this year are Republicans in states that the Democratic presidential candidates carried in 2000 and 2004: Sens. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.
Red states are home to all of the other targets: Sens. Mike DeWine in Ohio, Conrad Burns in Montana, George Allen in Virginia and Jon Kyl in Arizona, as well as Talent in Missouri and a seat being vacated in Tennessee.
Amid the bad political news that has battered the GOP this year, Republican strategists take comfort that so many of the crucial Senate fights are being waged on what amounts to the GOP's home turf.
"I would much rather have a playing field that was predominantly red states than predominantly blue states," said Terry Nelson, field director for Bush's 2004 reelection campaign.
In most of these contests, Democrats express confidence that antipathy toward Bush will spark a large turnout by their core voters. They also believe that concern about the Iraq war -- as well as anger over other matters, capped by the Foley scandal -- will improve their showing among relatively well-off, socially moderate suburban voters.
But in all but one of the key red-state Senate races, rural voters constitute a larger share of the population than they do nationally (Arizona is the exception). And that means that to gain Senate seats, Democrats need to minimize the GOP edge among culturally conservative exurban and rural voters.
Missouri embodies this dynamic.
Talent, a smart, low-key politician, won his seat in 2002 by fewer than 22,000 votes over the Democratic incumbent, Jean Carnahan. (She had served the first two years of the term won by her late husband, Mel Carnahan, in 2000.)
McCaskill is an accomplished foe. A former county prosecutor in Kansas City and a former state legislator, she is now state auditor. She is gregarious and focused on the campaign trail as she delivers a sharp-edged populist message.
Experts in Missouri politics think McCaskill is likely to post strong showings in the Kansas City and St. Louis metropolitan areas, partly because she supports, and Talent opposes, a state ballot initiative to authorize stem cell research.
But in her 2004 gubernatorial race, McCaskill won only eight of the state's 109 rural and exurban counties, noted Kenneth Warren, a St. Louis University political scientist. To win this year, he said, McCaskill's main challenge "is to get more of the rural vote."