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Monday, 16 October, 2000, 11:16 GMT 12:16 UK
Missouri moves centre stage
George W Bush plane
George W Bush flew to Texas ahead of the debate
By the BBC's Gordon Corera

While Massachusetts, the site of the first presidential debate is a side-show in the campaign thanks to its liberal tendencies, Missouri, the home of the last encounter between the candidates, is going to be absolutely central to who wins the White House on 7 November.

What makes Missouri so interesting - and important - is its diversity.

St Louis Gateway Arch
St Louis has an east coast feel but Missouri also mirrors southern attitudes
It has St Louis which has the feel of a large east coast city while Kansas City on the other side of the state is more mid-western.

And the southern parts of the state are politically and culturally like the south of the country as a whole - Branson, Missouri, a centre for country and western music is the second most popular tourist destination in the country.

Together this patchwork makes Missouri the state perhaps the most representative of the country as a whole and this is reflected by the remarkable fact that, except for 1956, in every election in the 20th Century, the candidate Missouri has backed went on to win the Presidency.

As a result it is a regular stop on the campaign trail for both Bush and Gore.

Crucial votes

With only 11 votes in the 538 member electoral college that will pick the next President, Missouri might not seem to be a big player, dwarfed as it is by states like California with 54 votes and New York with 33, but this election is likely to be decided by states like Missouri and even smaller states.

Al Gore in Michigan
Al Gore has slipped in the polls since the debates began
The electoral college is currently balanced on a knife edge and there are some big surprises.

No-one thought Florida would end up being competitive, governed as it is by the brother of George W Bush, but latest polls show a dead heat.

Equally no-one imagined, Tennessee, the home state of Al Gore, being a battleground but the candidates are neck and neck and Bush has been making a number of visits in the hope of embarrassing the vice-president.

Winning formula

The election looks so close and is so unpredictable that the candidates are even taking the fight to some of the small states which normally get overlooked.

Places like Wisconsin, Iowa, Oregon, New Mexico and even tiny New Hampshire with only four electoral votes are all of a sudden finding themselves the focus of presidential ambition and attention.

If things remain this close to the end then you can expect the campaign strategists to be sitting with their calculators out on election night trying to work out every permutation of states that will give them the magic number of 270 that means they have made it over the finish line.

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