ST. CHARLES, MO. — Two days after Barack Obama drew 100,000 supporters to a rally in St. Louis, John McCain attracted about 2,500 people to a field in this nearby suburb Monday, a visible symbol of the challenge the Republican nominee faces in this crucial state.
McCain barnstormed Missouri, hammering his opponent on taxes, healthcare and foreign policy in hopes of rebuilding the coalition of rural conservatives, evangelicals and others who helped deliver the state twice to President Bush.
The Arizona senator gave his standard campaign speech here in a key Republican stronghold and later flew to Columbia to have lunch with a dozen or so supporters. He ended with a sparsely attended, late-afternoon rally in Belton, outside Kansas City, one of the Republican-held suburbs where McCain needs a huge turnout.
Carol Wessel, GOP chairman in Lincoln County, insisted McCain would win the state despite losing his lead in polls. She dismissed the low turnout at his morning rally.
"It's Monday," she said. "Most people are working."
Others aren't so sure. Missouri is the ultimate presidential bellwether: It has voted with the winning party all but once in the last century. Sen. John F. Kerry, the Democratic nominee, had pulled his TV ads and essentially given up at this point four years ago.
This year, Missouri is suffering its worst unemployment in 17 years, and voters harbor a deep suspicion of the $700-billion bailout of financial institutions.
Obama's campaign also appears to be swamping McCain's effort in the state.
The Democrat has opened 40 offices, compared with 16 for McCain and the state GOP. Obama also is spending twice as much on TV ads, officials say.
More importantly, perhaps, a Democratic registration drive has added about 250,000 new voters in St. Louis and Kansas City.
Campaign aides expect McCain to run up a lead in the state's rural southwest, a strongly conservative area.
Both sides are fighting for the densely populated suburbs of St. Louis and Kansas City that will decide the state.
In his rally here, 20 miles northwest of St. Louis, McCain reached out to the conservative GOP base.
McCain blamed the "feminist left" for criticizing Sarah Palin since he announced his choice for a running mate. His surrogates portrayed the race in more apocalyptic terms.
"This election is a referendum on socialism," said Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.), who introduced McCain. After noting that Americans long ago cast off the chains of slavery, Akin said Obama's tax policies would impose "the golden chains of socialism."
McCain again cited Joe the Plumber, as he calls the Ohio man who confronted Obama over his proposed tax policies. His aides are convinced that Obama's comment that taxes help "spread the wealth" has helped stop McCain's slide in the polls.
"God bless Joe the Plumber," one aide said.
McCain portrays Joe Wurzelbacher as a symbol for all Americans struggling to get by. Among them, to hear McCain tell it, are Phil the Bricklayer, Wendy the Waitress and Rose the Teacher. On Monday, he added Ed the Dairyman.
Jessica Turntine, 24, a registered nurse, said McCain's approach made sense to her.
"I do not want to spread the wealth," she said after the rally. "I want to keep my money."
McCain returned to the theme after lunch with supporters in the Buckingham Smokehouse Bar-B-Q restaurant in Columbia.
"These are Joe the Plumbers, writ large," he said, as the group stepped outside to announce their jobs. "These are the pediatricians, these are the small-business owners . . . the painters . . . and the pharmacists . . . and the cosmetic distributor and land developers. These are the backbone of America's economy."
In a rally that barely filled the corner of a high school football field in Belton, McCain derided comments by Joe Biden, Obama's running mate. Biden said, if elected, Obama would be tested by an international crisis within his first six months and would need supporters to "stand with him" as he made difficult and perhaps unpopular decisions.
McCain portrayed the remarks as a gaffe that proved Obama was too risky to send to the Oval Office.
"We don't want a president who invites testing from the world at a time when our economy is in crisis and Americans are already fighting two wars," he said.
David Wade, an Obama spokesman, accused McCain of twisting Biden's comments. "Biden referenced the simple fact that history shows presidents face challenges from Day One," he said.