On a recent day in Hannibal, Mo., the boyhood hometown of Mark Twain, the Mississippi River was running fast and muddy, with some chop — a fitting metaphor for the final stage of the presidential campaign.
The author, whose real name was Samuel Clemens, once wrote, "If we would learn what the human race really is at bottom, we need only observe it in election times."
So in the week before the election, NPR traveled through Missouri as part of a series of stops along the Mississippi River to take the depth of voters.
The bellwether state of Missouri has voted for the winner of every presidential election since 1904, with the exception of 1956. The latest polls show Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain in a dead heat here.
The Charm Of Hannibal
In the town of Hannibal, local actor and Twain impersonator Richard Garey sports a wild shock of gray hair, a mustache, a cane and topcoat, and pocket watch.
"I grew up here on the west bank of Mississippi," Garey says, in character. "I have to tell you, the life I led here was full of charm — and so's the memory of it yet."
History is entwined with the present on all corners here. And any connection with Twain is worth salvaging.
Over the weekend, volunteers started stripping away the siding from the house where a childhood friend of the writer once lived. Laura Hawkins inspired the character Becky Thatcher when Twain wrote Tom Sawyer.
Frank Salter is one of the volunteers helping to "unveil" the Laura Hawkins house to reveal its natural state.
"It's just fun to see a street come back together," Salter says. "The houses, facades to be fixed up the way they were meant to be and then see the street — and it's fun to look at them and think, 'Sam Clemens stood on this corner and looked and saw the same houses I'm looking at now.' It makes Hannibal the town that it is really."
An Undecided Voter
When he's not out preserving homes, Salter is a chemist at a local cement factory. He is 62 and says he has always voted for Republicans for president. But now, eight days from Election Day, he's undecided.
"If McCain were, say, 52 rather than 72, I would probably have made up my mind to vote for McCain now — that may be the tipping point," Salter says. "I feel that Obama brings a lot of newness and resurgence, kind of like I remember the Kennedys. I was an Eisenhower Republican. I think that's why I'm a Republican, because I grew up in the Eisenhower years.
Salter says Obama reminds him of John F. Kennedy.
"I remember how exciting it was when Kennedy became president and I was a young man, and it felt like he was one of our own," he says. "And I think the young people feel that today — and in a way, I kind of want to be a part of it. And I like his nature, and I like his approach to large crowds and how he deals with situations. But I also know he's a Chicago Democrat. I know he can be rough, he knows how to play the game — I don't mean that in a negative way. I know he knows how to play the game and get elected."
Salter says there are specific issues that resonate with him that could tip him one way or the other. His wife, who is a teacher, suffered a stroke five years ago, and Salter says that had they not been married, she would have lost her insurance.
"At the time, I was much more in favor of not having socialized medicine — you know, health care for all," he says. "And now I watch her, and she had the stroke, she can no longer be a regular classroom teacher. ... So it made me take a very different look at that.
"As I said to someone earlier, I'll probably be the guy going into the voting booth not knowing which one I'm going to vote for at the time, but we'll see," Salter says.
But he notes that part of his indecision is because "it's hard to let go of the old ideas."
"I still look at an old slate chalkboard in a classroom, and I think, 'Oh those are the good days. I wish we could go back to that and not have these silly white boards where your colored markers never quite work right,' " he says. "My wife and I still teach classes at the college once in a while. And yet, you can't go back, you have to go forward."