ST. LOUIS -- Over at Pat's Bar and Grill on Thursday night, the Kerry campaign reached the limits of its momentum. One day earlier, it had been able to turn out roughly 1,000 people to a hastily called rally at the community college just down the street, for which the candidate flew in straight from Boston. The night before that, the campaign's managers had gotten 200 people to attend a New Hampshire watch-election party.

But now they'd called a debate-watch party, too, during the evening commute time, with the temperature at 12 degrees and with snow starting to fall. In New Hampshire, that would have deterred nobody, but New Hampshirites spend four years training for primary week. Here in Missouri, to say that nobody was even thinking about a contested presidential primary is to understate. Until nine days ago, this was all Gephardt country. Now it's all last-minute shopping -- a vast, unanticipated political Christmas Eve.

And so, for the first half-hour of the debate, a total of 11 John Kerry backers plopped themselves down at Pat's to hear the debate and to see who else had come out in the snow. The total grew throughout the evening; when I left it was about 30, among them the candidate's brother, Boston attorney Cameron Kerry. But considering that there was no campaign whatever here at this time last week, 30 Kerry backers at Pat's in the snow wasn't really bad at all.

Dick Gephardt's withdrawal from the race 10 days ago left Missouri's rank-and-file Democrats suddenly afloat and the state's political elite scrambling. There is one major political operation here, but it's Gephardt's, and the congressman has made clear he has no intention to endorse just yet. The U.S. senators here are Republican. The governor's a Democrat, but he's embroiled in a re-election primary battle next week with the state auditor, under which conditions it would be crazy to endorse anyone just now. The executive for St. Louis County, a prominent Democrat, died recently. The AFL-CIO, of course, is neutral, and the pro-Gephardt unions are still catching their breath.

That leaves St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay as the only bigfoot east of Kansas City with an organization to deliver, and Mayor Slay announced on January 24 that John Kerry was his man. Of course, that doesn't mean that city workers will be pounding the pavement for Kerry: The major public-employee union in these parts is the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which backs Howard Dean. And Dean just announced he's de-emphasizing next week's primaries to focus on the upcoming Michigan caucuses.

In the land of the demobilized, then, Francis Slay is king. On Tuesday, according to his chief of staff, Jeff Rainford, the Slay folks called several thousand backers asking them to come to Wednesday's rally. Clearly, quite a number responded.

The Kerry campaign itself is still getting situated, with the campaign's state director having just arrived on Sunday. Carrie Glenn, who helped arrange housing and transportation for out-of-state volunteers in Iowa, had flown back to Oregon to see about getting a job at Starbucks when the campaign called her to come to St. Louis to arrange housing for out-of-state volunteers here.

The most prominent local union (firefighters) for Kerry wasn't initially for him. The Missouri state council endorsed Gephardt last summer, before the International Association of Fire Fighters supported him and Missouri swung in line. State Council President John Corbett, who was one of the initial 11 at Pat's for the debate watch, says that Kerry was the only Democrat who polled well even with the international's Republican members, who were impressed with Kerry's Vietnam service record. Corbett says that the union has asked each of the Missouri members who are pro-Kerry to call five friends or neighbors on Kerry's behalf. By the standards of a Service Employees International Union (SEIU) political mobilization, this is a drop in the bucket, but the value of the firefighters' union to Kerry, much like the value of the Vietnam veterans' support, is less to mobilize voters for the candidate than to validate him in the voters' eyes.

John Edwards also came a courtin' here on Wednesday, dropping by a fabulously successful hamburger joint and club called Blueberry Hill, in whose Duck Room the senator addressed about 400 supporters (and, before that, at least that many who couldn't squeeze in the room and had been waiting outside). The Duck Room is something of a local cultural monument, with Chuck Berry playing there one night a month.

Chuck Berry has been performing since the dawn of the republic, and Edwards campaigning for just a little over a year. But Edwards' speech is already achieving the status of a golden oldie and is surely less subject to alteration than a Berry rendition of "Johnny B. Goode." It is, in its fusion of word and gesture, a thing of beauty, a populist summation worthy of the kind of first-class trial lawyer that Edwards is. On Tuesday night, it worked wonders with a crowd that included a mob of students from nearby Washington University in St. Louis. Still, there were a few holdouts for Kerry in the crowd -- just as there are been a few holdouts for Edwards when Kerry spoke at the community college earlier in the day.

The dissidents at each event lodged the same complaint: that the candidate had stayed only long enough to deliver his stump speech and had not remained to answer questions. Clearly, the combination of Iowa, New Hampshire, and C-SPAN has raised the expectations of America's political junkies beyond the capacity of candidates to meet them now that the campaign has gone national. Voters here are envious of the solicitude that the candidates showed voters in the first two states. But that was retail and this is wholesale, and the days when Howard Dean would answer at length a question about public-health programs in Uganda (which, I swear, happened just last weekend in Portsmouth) belong now to a political epoch that vanished on Tuesday.

The big news locally on Thursday was Ford Motor's announcement that it is shutting down one of the assembly lines at a local plant, which will cost St. Louis about 1,000 jobs. Once the debate ended tonight, a number of the folks at Pat's were talking it over, a couple of the Viet Vets most vociferously. Kerry's debate answers on trade -- emphasizing fair trade and the changes he'd make to the tax code that would stop rewarding U.S. corporations for relocating abroad -- played very well.

But left to his own devices, Kerry still shies from aspects of the populist campaign that he has found himself waging. There's an applause line in his stump speech about terminating the tax benefits for "Benedict Arnold companies and CEOs." But in his speech here Wednesday at the community college, he felt compelled to soften that blow before he delivered it.

"This has nothing to do with class warfare," he interjected. "There are great companies and great CEOs throughout America, and I don't want us to be a Democratic Party that loves jobs and hates the people who create them."

Part of this is a preemptive defense against Republican charges that Kerry's secret plan is to rebuild America in the image of the Paris Commune. But part of it is Kerry's own discomfort with populism -- an American impulse he clearly believes should be invoked only selectively and to which he himself has never remotely succumbed.

In a sense, this year's field of Democratic candidates can be divided into reluctant populists (Kerry, Wesley Clark), improbable populists (Dean), accomplished populists (Edwards), avid populists (Gephardt, Dennis Kucinich, Al Sharpton), and anti-populists (Joe Lieberman). Plutocracy engenders populism, and George W. Bush has turned the Democrats (the tenuously Democratic Lieberman excepted) into populists all.

Harold Meyerson is the Prospect's editor-at-large.

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