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Will Akin's Focus on Religion Ultimately Hurt or Help Him More?

Congressman Todd Akin (Photo credit: Ozark Radio News, used with permission)
Congressman Todd Akin (Photo credit: Ozark Radio News, used with permission)

At the early morning campaign rally for Todd Akin and other Republican candidates in West Plains this week, there were plenty of similarities to a McCaskill event:  donuts, coffee, signs and informed voters. One Mitt Romney and Akin supporter is dressed in a large, fluffy elephant hat, wearing a voice-activated US flag T-shirt. (The red, white and blue lights go up and down when she speaks). Meet Rosemary Landers of West Plains.

"I like to show how I feel by how I look on the outside. So, if that would elicit a conversation...I'd like to get in a conversation about this election," she said.

And that’s where our conversation goes. She’s throwing her support behind the Republican candidates, she says, because she’s worried about the America her future grandchildren will inherit—one, she fears, that will be mired in debt. She’s also supporting Mitt Romney, she says, because she doesn’t like President Barack Obama’s record on foreign policy.

"Right now, my blood is boiling when I think about it:  when Obama started going on his so-called apology tour...he was apologizing for America to other nations," she said.

That tour she’s referring to is the president’s visit to the Arab world shortly after he took office; many Republicans say his speeches there were too apologetic for America’s past involvement in the region. Democrats say that history needed to be addressed, and that his remarks weren’t apologetic.

Landers says the death of the US Ambassador to Libya was unsettling, and that the Obama administration has not been transparent in the details surrounding it.

Also there was Rebekah Ritschke, an in-home health care worker.  She says she’s struggling because of high gas prices, and she blames that on the Democratic-held White House.  Her job only pays for some of her mileage, so the uptick in gas prices has caused her to change how often she can go out to eat…and what she can afford to cook at home.

"I've used a lot of rice and a lot more beans, and reduced the amount of meat in recipes," she says.

[Sound: clapping, cheering]

Congressman Todd Akin arrives to a round of cheers.  One thing that sets this campaign event apart from a McCaskill campaign stop is the emphasis on God and faith.

To be certain, many supporters here can name a variety of reasons why they’re throwing their support behind Akin. But one volunteer, George Hansen, only gives two reasons for his support:  trust, and faith.

"I believe the same way. I believe in God. I mean, God is why I'm here today.  That's why I support [Akin] so much. I go door to door," Hansen said.

Akin takes a few moments to speak to the rally. He talks about repealing President Obama’s health care overhaul law and says McCaskill is like a “magician” who tries to distract Americans from the truth…pretty typical campaign talk. But he also makes several references to God.

"We understand the secret of America's greatness," Akin told supporters. "And that secret of America's greatness goes to that visionary idea that starts with a Creator that blessed us with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  That idea starts with God, doesn't it?"

There are several “Amens” and a couple of people even shed a tear or two as Akin speaks.

"I think it depends on where he focuses on [religion]," said Dr. George Connor, chair of the political science department at MSU.

"Ultimately, anybody who focuses on religious, conservative, Old Testament religious values, is going to help himself in southern and southwest Missouri," Connor said.

He says looking at the religious vote in context, we should remember that southern and southwest Missourians loved former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. And a big reason for that, Connor says, was that Huckabee had religious ideals, and he communicated them “in the style of a Baptist preacher.”

But will Akin’s focus on religion ultimately win him or lose him more votes?

"An over-appeal on religious grounds, in general in this state, is going to help Congressman Akin more than it is going to hurt him," Connor said.

Before Akin rolls out of West Plains and heads to the even smaller town of Gainesville, he quotes Patrick Henry, who upon seeing the options facing the fledgling United States on the brink of Revolution, reportedly said, “An appeal to arms and the God of hosts is all that’s left us,” – a quote that, at this rally, drew at least one more “Amen.”

For KSMU News, I’m Jennifer Davidson.