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Will Missouri make a difference on Super Tuesday?

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About 200 supporters and members of the press showed up to greet former Sen. Bill Bradley at a Feb. 14 fly-through held at the Downtown Airport. But, to the campaign staff's chagrin, a three-hour plane delay thinned the group to about 125 -- despite the barbecue brought in to feed the groaning crowd. Aside from the press, most of the people who stayed were members of a small contingent of Young Democrats from the University of Kansas.

Bradley's appearance was one of the few opportunities area residents have had to see presidential candidates in person, and some, such as local Democratic Party member Bill Carson, came to hear what the candidate had to say about certain issues.

"The needs of black people have been addressed under the leadership of Clinton and Gore," Carson said. "But Bradley's more in tune with the (President John F.) Kennedy model than Gore is. I believe he is more forward-thinking."

The majority of the crowd that night was under 30 years old, a demographic from which Bradley is getting a lot of support. Many of the young people there liked his stand on traditional Democratic values. Many of those attending the rally said Bradley was the only candidate addressing race issues. Others said they liked his straightforwardness and honesty.

Regardless of local residents' views on the candidates, many are learning about the candidates from news coverage of campaigning in other states. Missouri has only 11 electoral votes, which, compared with 54 in California, allow the state to have relatively little impact on the end result. And by the time Missouri's primary comes around on March 7, the Bradley event and a recent stopover by George W. Bush probably will constitute the most attention Missouri receives from any candidate.

There has not been much of a presence in the state by the presidential campaign. Bradley, who grew up in Crystal City, Mo., has a campaign office in Kansas City and, according to Mo Elleithee, spokesman for the campaign here, "has a fairly solid presence in Missouri," with offices in St. Louis, Crystal City, Columbia, and Springfield.

"This is a key state for our campaign," Elleithee said. "It's his home state, and of the 14 state primaries coming up, we feel Bradley's message will be well-received here."

Of the candidates, Bradley has the strongest presence in the state. Bush has an office in St. Louis with one staff member; Al Gore has an office in Kansas City with an answering machine; and John McCain has an insurance guy answering a phone in Nixa, Mo.

The primary, as it is run these days, is a relatively new entity in the election process. Traditionally, party insiders -- not the general public -- have caucused to determine the party candidates. The secret, or Australian, ballot didn't come into play until the turn of the century, when the LaFollette Reform Act opened the party caucuses to the public.

Robert LaFollette was a progressive Republican senator from Wisconsin who believed that a more open form of choosing nominees should be adopted. During LaFollette's term, Wisconsin passed one of the first open presidential primaries in the country. By 1960, 16 states had adopted the primary system, according to Dale Neuman, chair of the political science department at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. By the 1970s, 35 to 37 states were using the system. Missouri conducts what is called a modified primary. The election is open, and both Democrats and Republicans vote on the same day. In contrast, in the primary held in South Carolina, the parties vote on different days. Problems can crop up with "crossovers," which occur when members of a different party vote in the opposing party's primary to try to affect the outcome.

Missouri's primary process works like the electoral college. When the primary is over, the proportion of delegates voting for a particular candidate will be designated according to the percentage of votes each candidate received, according to a Kansas City Board of Elections official. However, the formula and details of how, where, and when each party caucuses are written in their respective rules, which read like War and Peace. Members of each party work hard to get their candidates elected. For that hard work, they caucus and select the delegates to go to the county, district, state, and national conventions. Missouri has 92 delegates to send to the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles. Forty-nine of those will be chosen at each of the different levels of caucuses. The Republicans will select 35 delegates to go to their convention in Philadelphia. Missouri has a multi-tier caucus system, beginning at the ward or township level and progressing to the state convention, where all delegates will be chosen, according to Kim Baldwin of the Democratic State Committee.

In the primary, Missouri voters must choose their ballot from one of the five approved parties: Democrat, Republican, U.S. Taxpayer, Reform, or Libertarian. A voter may choose a nonpartisan ballot, but it will have only initiatives and nonpartisan candidates on it. Sometime after the election, the parties send out a "public call" and set the date for their caucus. The county caucus for the Republicans will be on March 18. Democrats will caucus at the ward level on March 30. Both parties must, by law, publish the locations of each caucus, but, as Neuman said, "only the people who really want to get there can." Feb. 24 was the deadline for the first publication of the locations, and as of Feb. 25, no information had been published in The Kansas City Star.

For years people have complained that the caucuses are secret and that the parties don't really want the general voting public to attend. Party officials say they would love for more people to come; however, Neuman relates a story he once heard, which he believes sums up the parties' attitude toward party outsiders:

"The paper said the caucus address was at, I don't know, say, Third and Main," he says. "So these people went and it was a church parking lot. There were three school buses parked there, but they thought nothing of them. There were no signs pointing to the caucus location, no one waiting to advise people where to go. They waited, and as they waited they noticed people getting on the buses but still didn't think anything about it. Finally the buses left, were gone for a while, and when they came back, one of the people who had been waiting asked if they knew where the caucus was. The person getting off the bus said, 'Yes, we just came back from it.'"

The reason for the difficulty in learning about caucuses also lies in tradition and power. Each party works hard to get its slate of candidates elected. Party members canvas neighborhoods in support of their candidates, participate in phone banks, put out yard signs, and sponsor fund-raisers. These people have a long-term stake in their parties' success. In contrast, more typical is a guy who wakes up on election morning and remembers to vote on the way home only because he passes a polling site that has a sign reading "Vote here."

The caucuses also are where the parties carry out party business. They elect their delegates to their conventions, write party rules, and set the party platform. In the caucuses, however, the parties do not have to follow the primary results when choosing delegates to present candidates. The only way for a voter to assure herself that her vote in the primary was counted would be to show up at her party's caucus. According the Missouri Secretary of State's office, the Republicans have indicated they will have a winner-take-all format, but the Democrats have said they will follow the proportional formula from the primary results.

Low voter turnout has plagued elections for years. Unless an issue affects people personally, it is difficult for parties and candidates to get out the vote. In 1988, Missouri held its first presidential primary. According to America Votes, a statistics journal of voting records, out of 3 million people of voting age in Missouri, 2.9 million were registered, and only 928,105 voted in the 1988 primary.

However, in 1996, out of 3.5 million registered voters in the state, 2,158,065 people voted. That was nearly 62 percent and was the second-highest turnout in history. The highest turnout was in 1992, when 2.4 million voters hit the polls. For the March 7 primary, the Secretary of State's office projects a little over 1 million voters will participate, citing the lack of issues on the ballot as the reason for a low turnout projection.

Can the primary system make a difference in any election, or is it a waste of money, as the Kansas legislature intimated recently when its members voted not to fund a primary?

In 1968, Lyndon Johnson saw that he was not going to win the delegates he thought he deserved, and he dropped out. Neuman said of the primary system that "it may not help to select the best (candidate), but it avoids selecting the worst."

Missourians have voted for the winner in every presidential race since 1904, except one in 1956, according to Secretary of State records. Kansas canceled its primary this year to alleviate some of its budget problems, and many people complained that doing so usurped the democratic process.

Neuman said that Kansas legislators did what they thought was wise. "They saved some money and there was no Kansan on the ticket," he said. Missouri, Neuman feels, will not be significant because Bush has two sitting senators supporting him. Senators John Ashcroft and Kit Bond have worked hard to build the Republican party organization in the state of Missouri, and with the winner-take-all delegate selection process, Bush may have Missouri sewn up. According to Neuman, "The primaries are really a staging ground instead of a real competition."

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