Election 2008

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. The presidential candidates are kicking off what could be the most exhausting and exhilarating week of their lives. They are crisscrossing the swing states, Ohio and Pennsylvania, south to Virginia and Florida, west to Colorado and Nevada. And they are likely to touch down in a state with an uncanny knack for picking the winner in the presidential race. That's where our co-host Melissa Block is this week, talking to voters in Missouri.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

In Missouri, traveling along the Mississippi River. And we're starting today in Hannibal, Missouri, the boyhood home of Mark Twain.

Mr. RICHARD GAREY (Actor; Twain Impersonator): (As Mark Twain) Well, I grew up here on the west bank of the Mississippi River. And I have to tell you, the life I led here was full of charm, and so is the memory of it yet.

BLOCK: Mark Twain, as played by actor Richard Garey in Hannibal. He's got that wild shock of gray hair, the mustache, a cane and topcoat and pocket watch. Mark Twain took his penname from a riverboat term. He would have heard the call "Mark Twain" when he was a steamboat pilot watching the summer sun rise on the magical Mississippi.

Mr. GAREY: First, there's the deep eloquence of silence, for a deep hush just broods over everything. And then the black walls of the forest give way to gray, and whole stretches of that river open up and reveal themselves. And there's not a breath of wind, not a stir of leaf, and that water is just as smooth as glass, given off spectral little wreaths of white mist. And when you've seen that, you've seen something worth remembering.

BLOCK: The Mississippi today is running fast and muddy, with some chop. Not a bad metaphor at all for this final stage of the presidential campaign. Mark Twain once wrote, "If we would learn what the human race really is at bottom, we need only observe it in election times." So at this election time, we've come to Missouri where Samuel Clemens grew up before he adopted his penname. A bellwether state, Missouri has voted for the winner of every presidential election since 1904, except for 1956. The latest polls show Barack Obama and John McCain in a dead heat here.

Unidentified Man: I'll have it done sometime this week, all the siding off of it.

Unidentified Woman: OK, so Wednesday?

BLOCK: In Hannibal, history is entwined with the present on all corners. And any connection with Mark Twain is worth salvaging. This weekend, volunteers started stripping away the siding from the house where a childhood friend of the writer once lived. Laura Hawkins inspired the character Becky Thatcher when Twain wrote "Tom Sawyer." One of the volunteers helping unveil the Laura Hawkins' house to reveal its natural state was Frank Salter.

Mr. FRANK SALTER (Home Preservationist; Chemist): It's just fun to see a street come back together; the houses, facades to be fixed up the way they were meant to be; and then see the street. And it's fun to look at them and think, Sam Clemens stood on this corner and looked and saw the same houses I'm looking at now. It makes Hannibal the town that it is, really.

BLOCK: Along with being a home preservationist, Frank Salter is a chemist at a local cement factory. He is 62, has always voted for Republicans for president. But now, eight days from Election Day, he's undecided.

Mr. SALTER: If McCain were, say, 52 rather than 72, I would probably have made up my mind to vote for McCain now. That may be the tipping point.

BLOCK: The age issue?

Mr. SALTER: Yes. I feel that Obama brings a lot of newness and resurgence, kind of like I remember the Kennedys. I was an Eisenhower Republican. I think that's why I'm a Republican because I grew up in the Eisenhower years. But I remember how exciting it was when Kennedy became president. And it was a young man, and it felt like he was one of our own. And I think the young people feel that today. And in a way, I kind of want to be a part of it.

And I like his nature, and I like his approach to large crowds and how he deals with situations. But I also know he's a Chicago Democrat. I know he can be rough, he knows how to play the game. I don't mean that in a negative way. I just - I know he knows how to play the game and get elected.

BLOCK: Are there particular messages from either of the candidates that are really resonating with you, things you've heard them say?

Mr. SALTER: There are issues. Just like my wife suffered a stroke five years ago. She was teaching at that time, and I was much more in favor of not having socialized medicine, you know, health care for all. And now I watch her, and she had the stroke. She can no longer be a regular classroom teacher. Had she not been married, she would have lost her insurance. So there it is, the time that she needs it the very most is when it falls away from her, and it's no longer available to her. So it made me take a very different look at that. As I said to someone earlier, I'll probably be the guy going into the voting booth not knowing which one I'm going to vote for at the time, but we'll see.

BLOCK: Well, walk me through what's going through your mind as you think about that choice leading up to next week.

Mr. SALTER: As I get a little older, it's hard to let go of the old ideas. I still look at an old slate chalkboard in a classroom, and I think, oh, those were the good days. I wish we could go back to that and not have these silly white boards where your colored markers never quite work right. My wife and I still teach classes at the college once in a while. And yet, you know, you can't go back. You have to go forward.

BLOCK: Well, Frank Salter, it's good to talk to you. Thanks very much.

Mr. SALTER: Thank you.

BLOCK: Good luck making up your mind.

Mr. SALTER: Thank you.

BLOCK: Frank Salter in Hannibal, Missouri. Tomorrow on the program, we'll move down the Mississippi River to St. Louis. I'll visit a center where they're training workers for today's manufacturing jobs. I'm Melissa Block.

SIEGEL: And you can see photos of Hannibal and a map of Melissa's travels along the Mississippi at npr.org.

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