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Democrat Days exudes air of mystery: Who's the keynote speaker?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 4, 2010 - Just days away, details are still being worked out for this weekend's Democrat Days in Hannibal, a regional gathering that traditionally kicks off the party's statewide campaigns.

Gov. Jay Nixon and U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill are slated to headline Saturday's three-hour brunch, while Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan -- who's hoping to join McCaskill in the Senate -- will be featured at the dinner.

Party activists were mum on whether a well-known Democrat would join Carnahan at the dinner, as has often -- but not always -- been the case. Details were still being worked out, a state party spokesman said Wednesday.

The state Democratic Party helps out with Democrat Days. But officially,  the weekend event remains a regional affair -- unlike the state Republicans' Lincoln Days festivities, which is a statewide gathering and floats to different locations each year as a result. Lincoln Days was last weekend in St. Charles; next year it will be held in Springfield, Mo.

The Missouri Democratic Party's biggest statewide event is the annual Jefferson-Jackson fund-raising dinner in St. Louis. This year, the dinner is slated for March 19 at the Renaissance Grand Hotel downtown.

Democrat Days in Hannibal is different. It long has been, for Missouri party activists, the equivalent of New Hampshire because it launches a string of regional events around the state.

Democrat Days was particularly noteworthy during the decades it was run by the late Dottie Hubbard, who evoked a stunning resemblance (down to the cane) of the legendary older actress during Hollywood's Golden Age, Ethel Barrymore.

In 1992, then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton fit in a visit to Democrat Days (although hours late) right before the state's presidential primary and told the packed crowd that he did so in part out of respect to Mrs. Hubbard.

Eight years later, Democratic presidential hopeful (and Crystal City icon) Bill Bradley did the same, making his last stand at Democrat Days before bowing out a few days later, conceding defeat (and the party's nomination) to Al Gore.

Then, as now, northeast Missouri is swing political territory. The region's current state senator (Wes Shoemyer) is among only two rural Democrats (Frank Barnitz is the other) in the chamber.

The region also has a Democratic majority in the state House, but Republicans contend that many of them will be replaced this fall by the GOP -- an assertion that likely will spark discussion this weekend.

One of those Democratic legislators, state Rep. Rachel Bringer, D-Palmyra, says the facts underscore a stronger Democratic presence than Republicans want to admit. In 2002, she notes, the region's legislative delegation was five Republicans, four Democrats. Now, it's six Democrats and three Republicans.

Term limits are forcing out five Northeast Missouri legislators (including Bringer), but she points out that three of the five are Republicans.

Bringer also disputes the assertion of state House Majority Leader Steve Tiller, R-Perryville, that her 6th District seat will go to a Republican this fall. So far, only a Democrat -- Carl Thompson of Monroe City -- has filed. 

The upshot, says Bringer (who is running for an elected judicial post in 2012), is that northeat Missouri Democrats are confident they'll successfully defend their turf this fall.

Democrat Days has a decidedly rural feel, which gives it a casual, free-wheeling air. This Friday night, several state legislators, led Bringer, will once again entertain the crowd with their country/rock band, the "Vagabond Reps."

Because farmers get up early, the Saturday schedule begins at 7:30 a.m. with a "breakfast and political discussion." The speakers are to include former Sen. Jean Carnahan and state Auditor Susan Montee.

The marathon brunch, with Nixon and McCaskill, begins at 10 a.m. Saturday. Dinner with Robin Carnahan -- and perhaps a mystery speaker -- begins at 7 p.m.

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