"Whoever thought we'd be voting about letting two men and two women get married? It's ridiculous," said Kinder, the postal clerk in this tiny southern Missouri town that marks the population center of the nation, America's designated bulls-eye.
"Things are changing so much," she said.
And they are changing in the context of an extraordinarily polarized presidential election campaign. Amid disturbing uncertainties about war, terrorism and economic security, both major candidates and their surrogates are barnstorming this state, peddling the elixir they claim will settle any doubts: values.
Values are inherently desirable, if hard to define. They speak of Old Glory, virtue and star-spangled optimism. Or of strength and resolve and determination to do the "right" thing. Candidates use values to claim a higher moral pulpit.
No candidate travels the roads of Missouri without the implicit claim that his values are those of Missouri, and by extension, better than his opponent's. Values are painted in bold colors: Main Street versus elitism, mainstream versus extreme, us versus them.
Forget about any Missouri compromise.
Values are a catchall kind of code language of this presidential campaign, which plays out almost every day in Missouri in the form of a candidate's visit or a television commercial.
President Bush touts "courage and compassion, reverence and integrity." Sen. John Kerry promotes unifying values--"faith and family, service and sacrifice, responsibility and opportunity for all." Vice President Dick Cheney says Kerry lacks "deeply held convictions about right and wrong." Kerry's running mate, Sen. John Edwards, said Bush's values "are not the values of the American people."
Public opinion polls show Americans' top concerns are the economy, health care, the war in Iraq and the fight against terrorism. But if those issues are the bricks of the campaign, then values are the mortar.
The values debate in meat-and-potatoes Missouri is noted for a thin rhetorical veneer, a message masking often divisive themes that stoke much of the debate in modern American politics: rich versus poor, working versus welfare, abortion rights versus anti-abortion and, more recently, straights versus gays.
"My father and my brother will sit up and argue about politics and neither one of them can see how the other can take the position they argue and still be a Christian," said Honey Pickren, who runs a real estate office with her father in the southwest Missouri town of Rockaway Beach. "You can pull whatever you want from the Bible and put your own spin on it."
Brice Hale, a car salesman from the St. Louis suburb of Northwoods, said he's already tired of hearing the chatter about values. Hale said he doesn't want a moral compass in the White House; he wants answers.
"I want to hear how they are going to deal with American problems, like education and health care," Hale said. "You ever been to Washington, D.C.? Why do they have so many homeless people across from Lincoln Memorial? I don't understand."
In the great political divide that is Missouri, a state where voters have chosen every presidential winner since 1900, save for one Election Day fumble in 1956, the debate over values--however vaguely defined--will no doubt help decide whether Bush or Kerry gets the state's 11 electoral votes and, perhaps, the White House. The latest polls indicate Missouri is emphatically undecided at this point, a statistical pick 'em.
Missouri voters testy
Voters are testy. Early this month they sent packing the incumbent Democratic governor, Bob Holden, the first sitting chief executive in Missouri history to be turned out in a primary.
"Voters are in an uneasy mood," said Kenneth Warren, a political scientist at St. Louis University. "They don't feel comfortable about the presidential race" because of the economy and the war in Iraq.
Missouri is the product of the tumultuous melding of disparate Northern and Southern cultures and attendant social turmoil. The conflict over values is not simply one between Bush and Kerry; in Missouri it is part of war-within-a-state struggle.