Barnstorming Bush electrifies Republicans

To win the presidency on Tuesday the Texas Governor must triumph in Missouri, the ultimate bellweather and fiercely contested state
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George W Bush barnstormed yesterday into the key swing state of Missouri vowing to "reach across the partisan divide" in Washington and lambasting his opponent, Al Gore, as a creature of bureaucracy and big government.

George W Bush barnstormed yesterday into the key swing state of Missouri vowing to "reach across the partisan divide" in Washington and lambasting his opponent, Al Gore, as a creature of bureaucracy and big government.

In one of his biggest rallies, yet just five days before the election, Mr Bush accused Mr Gore of scare-mongering with his claims that the Republican plan for partial privatisation of social security - arguably the biggest single issue in the campaign - would bankrupt the system. "Our young people believe in this," Mr Bush said. "We're going to create prosperity for everyone." The response from the 8,000 people packed into a sports arena here was thunderous.

Indeed, Mr Bush's arrival was akin to a triumphal march, with great bags of red, white and blue balloons suspended above the blue podium on which he spoke and a banner proclaiming "bring America together" unfurled behind him.

The mood was almost of an inauguration ball, not an end-of-campaign speech in one of the most tightly contested US elections in four decades.

But the event was in fact tailored to Mr Bush's strategy to blur differences, rekindle the spirit of Ronald Regan and act as if victory was already assured. "Let's make America great again," he proclaimed. "Mr Gore says 'we ain't seen nothing yet' but we've seen quite enough. It's time for new leadership in Washington DC."

But behind the near delirium lurked a harsher reality: if Mr Bush is to win on Tuesday he had better win here.

Missouri is the ultimate bell-wether of presidential elections; only once this century - in 1976 - has it gone with a candidate who failed to win the White House.

This time it is one of the most fiercely, and evenly, contested states, with a poll in yesterday's St Louis Post-Dispatch giving Mr Bush a statistically insignificant 47 to 45 per cent lead in the chase for Missouri's precious 11 electoral college votes.

What is more, Mr Bush's "coat tails" could be crucial to Republican chances of retaining control of the Senate. If he wins, that might be enough to carry John Ashcroft, Missouri's beleaguered Republic senator, to victory in next week's contest. His Democratic opponent Mel Carnahan was killed in a plane crash 17 days ago.

"Vote for me, vote for me" pleaded Mr Ashcroft in his warm-up speech for the main event, only too aware that on current indications Missouri's voters could well send Mr Carnahan's widow to Washington in his place.

None the less Republicans, not just the crowd jammed into the children's arena here but around the country, can smell victory next Tuesday - and they are hungry for it.

The enthusiasm yesterday in this corner of Missouri was physical proof of what the polls have been saying for weeks: that the Republicans are more enthusiastic about Mr Bush than the Democrats are about Mr Gore.

As usual Mr Bush displayed on stage no great intellect but plenty of folksy charm. In his introduction he heaped praise on the local St Louis Cardinals baseball team and afterwards stepped down from his podium and plunged into the crowd. Then he departed to carry his optimistic message into Illinois and Wisconsin, two more mid-western states which the Republicans reckon they have a chance of capturing next week.

More clearly than ever, the struggle has crystallised into a contest between Mr Bush's indisputably more attractive personality and Mr Gore's somewhat uninspiring competence. Right now, it is a battle the Republicans seem to be winning, however narrowly.

At this late stage Mr Gore's best hope probably lies in rousing popular fears, especially among older people, that his opponent's social security proposals could jeopardise their pensions. The strategy appears to be working in Florida, with its large elderly population and 25 electoral votes, where the latest polls suggest that Mr Gore is 12 percentage points ahead of his rival.

But if yesterday was anything to go by here in the Midwest, Mr Bush's Reagan-esque optimism could carry the day.

At the urging of nervous Democrats, President Bill Clinton yesterday headed to Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay area where he hoped to turn his popularity into help for Mr Gore. With 54 electoral votes, one-fifth of the total needed to win the presidency, California is a cornerstone of Mr Gore's White House ambitions.