In the last 100 years, the midwestern state of Missouri has correctly picked the winner of the U.S. presidential race every time except for once.  This is why Missouri is considered a pivotal state and is home to a diverse voting population that mirrors the electorate for the United States at large.  As VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports from St. Louis, both presidential candidates view Missouri as a key prize to help win the election.

The Gateway Arch is the most recognizable landmark in Missouri's largest city, St. Louis. Situated on the banks of the Mississippi River, it marks an entrance to a part of the United States with a political landscape that reflects the attitude of American voters.

"We're often called the "Show Me State" but I often say we're actually the "Reflection State" that we kind of reflect what's being perceived nationally, especially among just average middle American people, not people on the coast," said Jo Mannies, a political reporter for the St. Louis Post Dispatch newspaper.

Both presidential candidates seem to agree. This is why Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain are spending tens of millions of dollars on political advertising throughout Missouri.

Another reason is that Missouri acts as a political laboratory for the candidates, allowing them to see how Missouri voters will react to their campaign ads and messages.

"If something plays well here, it's likely to play well in other states," Mannies said.  "If something doesn't play well, it means it's not going to play well in other states."

"Geographically, Missouri is right in the middle of the United States, but also politically it's at the center of the United States," said Peter Kastor, a professor at Washington University of St. Louis, which hosted this year's vice presidential debates between Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and Delaware Senator Joe Biden.

Kastor says Obama and Biden's message of change helps them on college campuses and in larger, urban areas in Missouri, like St. Louis and Kansas City.

In the 2004 election, Republican George Bush, who opposed abortion and same-sex marriages and supported gun rights, appealed to rural voters throughout the rest of the state.  Because of the surprisingly large turnout of those voters, Bush narrowly carried Missouri to ultimately defeat Democrat John Kerry in the general election.

But this year, Kastor says issues that helped George Bush win re-election to the White House in 2004 are eclipsed by the state of the economy.

"The economy has always mattered in American electoral behavior, as it does in all countries.  But the degree to which it will matter is still up for grabs," he said.

Missouri voters head to the polls this November at a time when the financial crisis on Wall Street threatens to put the U.S. economy in a tailspin.

The weak value of the dollar was a factor contributing to the impending sale of Missouri's most famous business, the Anheuser-Busch brewing company, to a foreign buyer. 

The state's Democratic party spokesman, Jack Cardetti, describes the company as an icon.

"Anheuser-Busch is as American as apple pie and Budweiser.  It is clearly a Missouri icon," he said.  "When you watch the commercials, they end their commercials with 'brewed in St. Louis Missouri.'  That is an extreme source of pride for us."

The impending sale of Anheuser-Busch to the Belgian brewing company InBev has many in Missouri upset.  Anheuser-Busch shareholders vote on the sale November 12, after the presidential election.  The greatest concern is that if sold, the new owners would cut jobs.

Democrats hope to use the issue to their advantage by blaming the Bush administration for creating the conditions that led to the deal to sell the company.  

"Right now, too many jobs of ours are being shipped overseas and outsourced." Cardetti said.  "That is a problem under the Bush administration.  John McCain has supported those policies."

Missouri Republican Party Executive Director Jared Craighead disagrees.

"People aren't going to go the voting booth and say 'well Anheuser-Busch was sold to a foreign company, I'm not happy about it and so I'm voting a different way,'" he said.

Bad news about the economy continues to emerge each day, as the general election gets closer.  With so much at stake, and with so much news changing voters' attitudes daily, reporter Jo Mannies isn't willing to make predictions about the outcome.

"I've been doing this long enough that I know better than to predict because I think in a close contest," Mannies said. "It's going to be tight."

So tight, in fact,that a recent St. Louis Dispatch poll has John McCain ahead by just one percentage point, essentially a statistical tie with Barack Obama.