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How will MO blue-collar voters break?

From NBC's Domenico Montanaro

ST. LOUIS, Mo. -- Polls have shifted over the last couple of weeks --
with the economy in focus and in crisis -- to Obama-Biden. But if the
Democratic ticket has a chance here in Missouri, then it will likely
come down to working-class, Republican-leaning voters.

In 2000 and 2004, Bush won Missouri -- a state that has predicted the
president in all but one election since 1960. But recent public polling
indicates Obama has moved into a virtual tie in the Show-Me State.

For Obama to win it, though, he is going to have to "show" something to
those blue-collar Bush voters, some of whom appear open to voting for
him.

A focus group of working-class Missouri voters conducted Thursday by
pollster Peter Hart (the Democratic part of the NBC/Wall Street Journal
poll) was evidence of that.

The participants ranged in age from 25 to 68. There were five Obama
voters, three McCain voters and four who identified themselves as
undecided -- though at least two of those leaned more heavily to
McCain.

The four undecideds all voted for Bush in the past two elections, but
are open to voting for Obama, they said, because of lingering questions
regarding McCain's personality, temperament and his campaign conduct in
the past two weeks.

"I think he's flailing," said Jean Geitz, a 60-year-old self-described
"bug lady" from Fenton, Mo. Geitz is an office manager for a local pest
control company.

"I don't think either one is the total package," said Tom Coates, a
47-year-old construction worker from Brentwood. He described Obama as
"a thinker" and McCain as "more knee jerk" -- though he said he admires
McCain's life story and "just likes the guy."

National security looms large for Coates and he gives the advantage to McCain on the subject.

"Our enemies will fear us and continue to fear us" with McCain, he
said. "It scares me that someone softer could get in." He cited his
three daughters who he doesn't want "to live in fear."

But Coates, who has a Republican father and Democratic brother equally
in his ear, said though national security was important to him, equally
important were manufacturing jobs and health care for his parents --
something he said he feels Obama is perhaps more likely to make
attainable.

"If he [Obama] could guarantee something on health care-- my parents
are older," Coates said. "My parents are very important to me."

It perhaps explains the Obama campaign's round of Midwest health-care
ads, painting the Illinois senator's plan as a centrist one, which
rejects both extremes.

Coates also said he's not quite locked in for McCain because of his age
and his "distance from modern technology issues." He added that
initially Palin moved him toward McCain, but "she said some ridiculous
things to Katie Couric. 'I'll get back to you?'" he said, incredulously.

Chris Spitzer, 44, said Obama's experience level "concerns" him, but he
views him as a "Martin Luther King type" and likes how positively other
countries view him.

"I don't like how other countries view us right now," Spitzer said. But
he warned, that the U.S. can't negotiate with countries that are run by
terrorists or support terrorism.

That doesn't mean he's necessarily sealed for McCain.

"His temper concerns me," Spitzer said of McCain. Being a "maverick
could be bad," he added, particularly when it comes to negotiating with
other countries. "I could see him getting mad in a meeting…. that
concerns me. … Maybe it's better to have something fresh, new."

Coates and Tim Wohlschlaeger, 44, a tool and die shop designer, said
they were likely voting for McCain before his campaign "suspension."
They still lean that way, but they seemed perplexed by the tactic and
are now reconsidering.

Rather than suspend, Wohlschlaeger said, McCain should have "taken care
of business." By contrast, he said, Obama was "respectful" and
understood he wasn't a "one-man band" on the bailout. "But I wish they
would have talked to each other and done it together."

Coates made an appeal to common sense.

"If you say you're going to do something, you have to do it," Coates said.

Spitzer, who gave McCain credit for "suspending" his campaign, saying
it showed leadership, also was critical of what he saw as a lack of
follow through. He said it made McCain look like a "waffler" and agreed
with an Obama voter in the group who said the move was a "publicity
stunt."

Geitz, who stressed family and moral values, said she is "totally up in
the air. And I'm not usually." She likes Obama's "quiet, calm
demeanor," that he is a "family man" and has a service background. But
she is thinks his "lesser experience" could be a hindrance,
particularly when it comes to national security. But she described
Palin as "scary" and said that their running mates matter.

In fact, the group had mixed opinions of Palin. Most said they liked
her initially because of her "blue-collar" roots. But her round of
media interviews cast a pall of doubt. And when asked to stand up to
show who they'd vote for if it were between Biden and Palin, Biden won
8-4.

Of McCain, Geitz said his "age" and "temperament make me uncertain." In
fact, everyone unprompted, made the point of McCain's age and
temperament, including those solidly voting for McCain.

Susan Pickering, a 46-year-old, Fox News-watching staunch Republican
homemaker and McCain defender, even said, "What makes me nervous about
him, he can go off half-cocked occasionally. Anyone stuck in a room for
five years, uh, I don't know."

These voters had qualms with Obama, too. They had praise on
personality for Obama, particularly in his "calm" through the past two
weeks. But they used the word "inexperienced" as his biggest detractor.
No one mentioned, in the more than two-hour session, taxes as
problematic for Obama. And no one mentioned the words elitist or
arrogant in describing his demeanor.

Hart suggested, as others have, that "Obama's inexperience is a lot of other stuff churning in the system."

Race is a factor. Five in the group admitted it will negatively affect
Obama. Most cited neighbors or others who might not vote for Obama
because he is black -- though none said so themselves.

"They know there's a racial issue," Hart said, "and when they face it, it's going to be one way or another."

NOTES: Other takeaways… Dick Cheney is absolutely toxic. Even those who
voted for Bush were vitriolic in their criticism, calling him
"maniacal" and "obsessive." None wanted him as their boss. Well, one
said, for how much, but then gave it a second thought. None of these
voters had nice things to say about Nancy Pelosi either. …Bush was
called "patriotic" and "a good American" by some, but also labeled a
"disappointment" by a Bush voter.