As goes Missouri, so will go the nation. That is the fervent hope of John Kerry, poised for a sweeping victory today in this Midwestern state's primary that he hopes will put him on a glide path to the Democratic nomination - and, if history is any guide, just possibly to the White House thereafter.
Missouri is not only the most valuable, in terms of convention delegates, of the seven states holding primaries today. When the presidential election comes around in November, it is also a pointer to the ultimate winner. Over the past 100 years, only once - when it plumped for Adlai Stevenson in 1956 over Dwight Eisenhower - has Missouri failed to back the winner, a record unmatched by any other state.
But for the moment the primary is the focus, albeit a rather belated one. Before the Iowa caucuses a fortnight ago, no one had bothered with Missouri, conceded in advance to the home state favourite son, the St Louis congressman Richard Gephardt. But then Mr Gephardt finished a distant fourth in Iowa and abandoned his bid for the White House.
His rivals swooped here like vultures on a carcass. Senator John Edwards of North Carolina and Senator Kerry of Massachusetts enlisted Gephardt campaign aides. Mr Kerry also picked up a host of endorsements, including that of the popular former senator Jean Carnahan - though Mr Gephardt himself has declined to confer his blessing on anyone.
Gephardt supporters have swung behind him en masse, apparently in the belief that he has the best chance of beating George Bush this autumn. Polls show him with between 40 and 50 per cent, followed at a remote distance by Mr Edwards and "don't knows". The first stop for Mr Kerry after his win in New Hampshire was to this old manufacturing city on the banks of the Mississippi, home to perhaps half of likely Democratic voters. At the weekend he was at the other side of Missouri, in Kansas City paying little heed to his Democratic rivals and sharpening his attacks on Mr Bush.
Flanked by fellow Vietnam veterans, he derided the President for "beating his chest" on an aircraft carrier and declaring the Iraq war over. "But when it comes to jobs, when it comes to health care, when it comes to children, prescription drugs and cleaning up the environment, it's not 'mission accomplished'. It's 'mission abandoned'," said the senator.
Almost certainly, the surge in support for the Massachusetts senator is less substantial than it seems. "With the compressed primary timetable, voters - and especially voters in Missouri - suddenly have to decide, but without any time to consider," said John Zogby, the pollster. "A Kerry blow-out is likely, but almost entirely because of his bounce [after Iowa and New Hampshire]."
Momentum alone could be enough to put Mr Kerry in a near-impregnable position when the returns from the seven primary states are in. It is unlikely he will achieve a clean sweep - Mr Edwards was ahead yesterday in South Carolina, a state he admits he must win to keep his candidacy alive, while General Wesley Clark held a tiny lead in Oklahoma. But Mr Kerry is leading in Arizona, New Mexico and North Dakota. Five wins would demonstrate his appeal across the country, and increase pressure on other candidates to withdraw.
Top of the list for elimination is Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut senator who was Al Gore's running mate in 2000, but who finished a bad fifth in New Hampshire. Mr Lieberman is pinning his slender hopes on decent showings in Delaware and Arizona.
Mr Edwards and General Clark are expected to stay in the race. So is the former Vermont governor Howard Dean, who after dominating the race in 2003 has been beaten by Mr Kerry in New Hampshire and Iowa, and can hope for third and fourth places at best today.
Armed with a new campaign high command, Mr Dean is focusing on the caucuses in Michigan as a springboard for a comeback on 2 March when California, New York and other big states are holding primaries, and more than a quarter of convention delegates will be allocated. But in Michigan too, Mr Kerry holds a solid lead. "The momentum he's got will make him very hard to stop," said Bill Richardson, Governor of New Mexico and a possible running mate for Mr Kerry if he wins the nomination.
Picking the winner
Today's seven primaries, the first multi-state day of the election season, allocate 269 delegates to the Democratic convention in Boston in July. Including "super-delegates", 4,317 delegates will attend, with 2,159 needed for a nomination.
The next key dates are 7 February, when Michigan and Washington allocate a combined 204 delegates. On 10 February Virginia and Tennessee select 151. The day likely to settle matters is 2 March, when 10 states, including California, New York and Ohio, choose 1,151 delegates, more than half the number needed for victory. If a winner has not emerged, Florida (177) and Texas (195) on 9 March, Illinois (156) on 16 March, Pennsylvania (151) on 27 April, or North Carolina (90) on 4 May, may be critical.
After Iowa and New Hampshire, John Kerry has 33 pledged delegates, John Edwards 18, and Howard Dean 16.