Presidential candidates heavily wooing St. Louis region on eve of Missouri & Illinois primaries

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Presidential candidates heavily wooing St. Louis region on eve of Missouri & Illinois primaries

By Kevin McDermott, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Former President Bill Clinton stood before several hundred supporters in a union hall here Tuesday night to make the case for his wife’s presidency — and to laugh with St. Louis Democrats about what they’re seeing in the Republican presidential primary race.

“Look, this is an interesting election, would you agree with that?” he asked in his patented Arkansas rasp, drawing laughter. “I haven’t seen people behave like that since I used to get in fights at recess in grade school.”

Earlier Tuesday, across the Mississippi River at the other end of the St. Louis region, Heidi Cruz stood in a Belleville restaurant and extolled the virtues of her husband, Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, and the political importance of Illinois.

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“This is an incredibly important state. You have a big voice this election,” she told about 200 cheering supporters. “We are really focusing a lot of our efforts on the central and southern parts of Illinois. On Tuesday, this is a key state for us.”

Cruz’s top nemesis, GOP front-runner Donald Trump, will make his own pitch to the region when he rallies supporters Friday at the Peabody Opera House in downtown St. Louis. The following night, Ted Cruz will speak at the St. Louis County GOP’s annual Lincoln-Reagan Dinner at Orlando Gardens in Maryland Heights. And Bernie Sanders made his case last week to thousands of cheering college students in the Metro East.

Like a long-neglected spinster who suddenly has a dowry to wave around, St. Louis is enjoying some 11th-hour love from presidential candidates in both parties as the next round of primaries approach.

Their intentions aren’t a mystery. Five major states vote on Tuesday, and the St. Louis region straddles the border between two of them — offering Republicans a Missouri-Illinois total of more than 120 delegates, and enticing Democrats with more than 250.

Of the six presidential campaigns in the two major parties, at least four of them have arranged to have the candidates or their spouses in St. Louis or the Metro East in the runup to Tuesday.

There’s been no word of visits to the area by the two other GOP candidates, Sen. Marco Rubio and Gov. John Kasich, both of whom have must-win primaries in their home states (Florida and Ohio, respectively) on the same day Illinois and Missouri vote. But Rubio has been on the airwaves in the region, along with major ad buys from both Clinton and Sanders.

The wide interest here isn’t surprising, given that not one candidate in either party can claim to have the region locked up. There has been little polling in Missouri or Illinois, and unlike Florida and Ohio, neither state has a favorite son or daughter in the race. (Though Hillary Clinton is a Chicago-area native, Illinois has never figured prominently in her political career.)

In essence, anything could happen here.

Bill Clinton, speaking Tuesday at District 9 Machinists Hall in Bridgeton, spent most of his speech promising that Hillary Clinton would pursue policies similar to the ones from his presidency, with “shared prosperity” as the goal.

“We have to elect a president that will allow us to rise together,” he said, then launched into more than half an hour of detailed policy discussion on the need for infrastructure investment, continued health care reform, a minimum wage increase and other policy issues.

“You will not recognize this country in four or five years if we have one of those people running in the other party as president, and a Republican Congress and a Republican Supreme Court,” Clinton warned.

Democratic Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, who is running for governor this year, introduced Clinton in part by slamming the Republican Party in general, and Trump in particular.

During the primaries so far, Koster said, “We’ve watched the Republican Party untether itself from the planet Earth” by preparing to nominate for president “a modern-day P.T. Barnum — a man whose only conviction in this world is that there’s a sucker born every minute.”

Earlier Tuesday, in Belleville, Heidi Cruz, too, aimed her remarks in part at her husband’s most daunting competitor for the Republican presidential nomination.

“Ted Cruz can unite this party by appealing to our better selves. We don’t need to appeal to our fears, to our worst selves, to being against people,” she told the crowd at Eckert’s Country Store, not invoking Trump by name and not needing to.

In an apparent reference to Trump’s central anti-immigration themes, she added: “This country was founded by legal immigrants, people who came from all over the world to live in freedom. We can win this by speaking for America, not by … pitting people against each other.”

The states voting on Tuesday are Missouri, Illinois, Florida, Ohio and North Carolina.

Illinois conducts its state-level primaries at the same time it does its presidential primaries, while Missouri does them separately.

In Missouri, only the presidential nominees will be selected by the state’s voters Tuesday. Primary candidates for the governor’s office, Congress and other Missouri offices will face the voters Aug. 2.

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