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Presidential candidates making early stops in Missouri - for money

Jo Mannies
St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MCT)

ST. LOUIS - Sen. Barack Obama's public schedule for Feb. 22 reported that he would be campaigning for president in Houston.

But what the schedule didn't mention was that while en route from Iowa, the Illinois Democrat would make a prosperous pit stop in St. Louis.

During his unannounced two-hour visit, Obama appeared at a private fundraiser in the Central West End, where he collected $40,000, shook hands and posed for pictures with about 70 attendees, including Rams running back Marshall Faulk.

Why so hush-hush?

"The most striking thing about this campaign is that it has begun so early, and money is at such a premium," said Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

What's happening in Missouri - among the first major bloc of states that will hold presidential primaries next Feb. 5 - is a reflection of the national trend, Robertson and others say.

"The presidential campaign right now is not about reaching to voters, unless those voters can reach back with a big check," said Massie Ritsch, communications director for the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group that tracks campaign donations.

Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki disputed that observation, citing the candidate's numerous public events in other states.

The St. Louis stop last month was low-key and unpublicized, Psaki explained, because the event was a private fundraiser in someone's home. The campaign didn't want to attract huge crowds of the public or press, she said.

But Psaki also acknowledged the obvious: "It's no state secret that you do need to raise money to be a viable candidate for president."

And when it comes to the Show-Me state, that's a view shared by most of Obama's rivals in either party.

For all the hoopla over Missouri's status as a bellwether state to gauge public opinion, fundraising has been the chief - and usually sole - purpose of all but one presidential contender who has dropped by the state since last fall's election.

That's been especially true for the Democrats.

On Monday, for example, former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe, will be in town for a book tour to promote his memoir. But Democratic activists say he'll also find time for a private event here to mingle with potential donors to the presidential candidate he supports: Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y..

The aim is to rev up local interest for a possible fundraising visit by the senator herself in the spring, local organizers say.

Clinton's last stop in St. Louis was almost a year ago, when she attended a private fundraiser at a home in the Central West End, which raised money for her U.S. Senate re-election last fall.

Clinton already has lined up the support of one of Missouri's most powerful Democratic operative-fundraisers: Joyce Aboussie, who was national political director for Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., until he retired in 2005.

The other major Democrat running for president, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, has made several public visits to Missouri in the past two years to campaign for various candidates. But his most recent one, to Kansas City a few weeks ago, was primarily aimed at raising money.

One of his key supporters is Julie Gibson, a veteran Democratic activist. Gibson said she's been helping him to raise money, in preparation for a higher-profile presence in Missouri in the coming months.

Edwards is expected to visit St. Louis in April, again, primarily to raise money.

He's augmenting his quest for cash, added Edwards supporter Julie Gibson, with an under-the-radar effort to build a nationwide grass-roots army of supporters via the Internet. That army already has a toehold in Missouri, she said.

The Web effort, called "One Corps," organizes blocs of supporters who can communicate via the Web. So far, Edwards has 18 "One Corps" chapters in Missouri. The largest - with 48 members - is in St. Louis.

Meanwhile, the Republican presidential candidates seem less interested in wooing Missouri voters or donors.

A key reason, says Republican consultant John Hancock, is that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney "appears to have Missouri locked down, as far as I can tell."

Gov. Matt Blunt, former Sen. Jim Talent, several members of Congress and some key Missouri Republican operatives all have lined up behind Romney.

That strong support enticed Romney to fly to St. Louis last month to headline the state Republican Party's Lincoln Days gathering. And he didn't schedule a fundraiser while in town; Romney said he'd raise money in another visit.

He might not want to delay. A spokesman for former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani says that he has no plans to write off the state. "Missouri is very important to us, and we are in the process of building a strong organizational structure," said spokesman Elliott Bundy.

At UMSL, Robertson said he wonders whether Missouri will end up being overshadowed by the flood of larger states - notably California - that might join the crowd holding presidential primaries on Feb. 5.

"There's substantial concern that Missouri will be eclipsed by much larger states, with much larger treasure-troves of delegates," Robertson said.

But St. Louis University political science professor Ken Warren predicts that such hand-wringing might be pointless.

"By then, the contest could already be all over," Warren said, citing the number of presidential hopefuls who already have dropped out because of a cash crunch.

"Experts are saying that candidates will need $80 million to $100 million by next January to compete," Warren said. "Money is trumping everything. And that's not good for democracy."

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