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Missouri Democrats hope their old haunt will lead to a new start

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 5, 2011 - In March 1992, the Hannibal Inn (then a Holiday Inn) was packed as then-presidential hopeful Bill Clinton -- who arrived hours late -- mesmerized the Democrat Days crowd jammed in the ballroom, then dove into the lobby and around the pool to shake every hand in sight. For hours.

A few years later, then-vice presidential spouse Tipper Gore showed up at Democrat Days to whip up the faithful for the Clinton-Al Gore re-election effort in 1996.

And in March 2000, then-Democratic presidential contender Bill Bradley (a Crystal City native) held court in the gas station next to the hotel, just prior to appearing before another packed Democrat Days banquet crowd to make his last-stand pitch for what turned out to be a losing challenge of Gore.

Opening night at Democrat Days used to feature a large pig roasting on a spit by the pool, with cigarette smoke and the smell of barbecue mixing with the chlorine filling the air. The pig is gone, but the traditional smells are back.

Democrat Days is the first of a series of regional Democratic gatherings around Missouri that continue into June. A Missouri "New Hampshire," Democrat Days usually is where candidates declare their bids, test out campaign themes and try to make a bit of news.

For decades, the event was organized under the iron hand of co-founder Dotty Hubbard, who reigned over the weekend with a cane and conviction until her death about a decade ago. Her Democratic commitment, and clout, helped draw all those big names.

The Hannibal Inn, which was never fancy even during the Democratic heydays, remained the event's scene of choice until a few years ago. In the quest for a fresher image, organizers chose a newer, swankier hotel on the western edge of town.

But after last fall's Democratic drubbing at the polls, Democrat Days organizers decided that perhaps a return to their roots -- for the event and the party -- will help put both on a better path for 2012.

The Hannibal Inn is now affilated with Motel 6. And at this year's Democrat Days, the only big-name speakers will hail from Missouri.

The headliner at the brunch is Secretary of State Robin Carnahan who launched her ill-fated U.S. Senate campaign and its "no bull'' theme at last year's Democrat Days event. She's now kicking off a bid for her third term as the state's chief elections official.

State Treasurer Clint Zweifel, who also is running for re-election in 2012, is expected to address the brunch crowd as well. So is Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, a Republican turned Democrat out to reinforce his latter credentials.

Saturday night's banquet will feature Gov. Jay Nixon and U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill -- the two prime targets of the state Republican Party's Lincoln Days festivities last weekend.

Nixon already had sought to make some news by disclosing that he's hired a campaign manager for his 2012 re-election bid. The governor's choice is Oren Shur, who served as Nixon's somewhat combative communications director for his successful 2008 campaign. Last fall, Shur didn't have such good luck in New Mexico, where he ran the campaign for the losing Democrat.

Still, Nixon's decision to go with someone he knows and trusts fits in with his plans to stick with a proven playbook. So far, his Republican attacks have yet to tag the governor as a closet liberal -- although his team expects that will come.

McCaskill already is taking plenty of verbal volleys from Republicans who accuse her of trying to recast her image and play down her 2008 role as President Barack Obama's congressional best friend on the campaign trail. Her speech Saturday night will offer a look at how she plans to approach 2012 -- and whether she advises fellow Democrat to tack right or left.

All the action is to take place in the Hannibal Inn's revamped ballroom.

The hotel, like Missouri Democrats and their annual campaign kickoff event, has seen better days. As hundreds gather at this weekend's Democrat Days, activists hope that some sprucing up -- by the hotel's new owners and state Democratic leaders -- will change the 2012 outlook for both.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.