'Ex-Urbanites' Are Fertile Ground For GOP

A rusted manure spreader stands outside City Hall, a relic from the 1970s when fewer than 500 people lived in this community west of St. Louis (search), mostly farmers and Democrats.

Today, the farms are paved and filled with treeless subdivisions and cookie-cutter homes. The city's population is 57,000, mostly young families.

"This is Republican country now," said Cyril Ell, 79, a lifelong Democrat born in a brick house in the city's quaint "old town" section.

The growth of places like St. Peters is a nationwide trend -- "exurbs" (search) filled with white, highly educated, well-paid families who left close-in suburbs for better schools and more land. These exurbs, along with conservative-tilting rural America, are fertile territory for Republicans determined to get GOP voters to the polls to solidify the party's hold on Congress and the White House.

"Exurban voters are concerned about the economic future, taxes, education and Social Security (search) reform," said Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn. "They don't think government can solve every problem. They're Republicans."

There is striking uniformity to the exurbs -- long stretches of busy roadways lined with "big box" stores such as Best Buy and restaurant chains such as Applebees that have made a science out of popping up in booming communities loaded with young families and disposable incomes.

"The focal point used to be Main Street (search)," said Applebees spokeswoman Laurie Ellison. Today, the heart of a neighborhood is more often "the most convenient crossroad between home, office, school and recreation," she said.

In 2002, Coleman defeated former Vice President Walter Mondale for the Senate by dominating in the sprawling new communities beyond the inner ring of traditional suburbs -- places like Chisago County north of the Twin Cities and Scott County to the south.

Bush beat Democrat Al Gore by 10 percentage points in St. Peters and 12 points in nearby O'Fallon County while barely winning Missouri in 2000. Two years later, Sen. Jim Talent increased the GOP margins by a percentage point or two in a state that went for Bush's father in 1988 and Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996.

Exurbs were a key to other GOP advances in 2002: In Georgia, where subdivisions are gobbling land far outside Atlanta; in Colorado's Douglas County outside Denver, the fastest growing county in the country; and in Maryland, where the vote in rural counties and fast-growing exurban areas such as Frederick County propelled Republican Robert Ehrlich to a stunning victory over Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

Meanwhile, the traditional inner-ring suburbs -- older and slower-growing -- are becoming slightly more Democratic as minorities and union workers move from the cities and moderate suburban women turn from the GOP.

Coleman said he did worse than Bush's 2000 totals in 70 of 87 counties in 2002, but won the Minnesota Senate seat because, "I dominated in the exurban counties. Not just in the first- and second-circle suburbs, but beyond there."

Laura Hemler, 36, a mother of three in the Minneapolis suburb of Edina, cut her teeth on GOP politics as a volunteer on Coleman's campaign. Today, she co-chairs Bush's campaign in the state's most populous and wealthiest county, Hennepin.

She oversees a steering committee, 10 city chairs, more than 200 precincts captains and a list of volunteers that numbers in the thousands -- an organization that has Democrats struggling to catch up. "The president will dominate the suburbs," she said.

Her organization includes a phone and e-mail tree that distributes messages from campaign leaders in Arlington, Va., to volunteers and supporters throughout the county.

It is part of the campaign's nationwide effort to capitalize on Bush's tax cut and policies on terrorism and social issues that appeal to young, upwardly mobile exurban families whose lives tend to revolve around new monster-size churches.

Half of solid GOP voters say national security is their most important issue, and the key quality they want in a leader is someone who stands up for his or her beliefs, according to AP-Ipsos polling. Just as many voters called themselves Republicans as Democrats, a shift from the post-Watergate era when just 21 percent said they were Republicans.

Bush's campaign has scoured consumer data to locate potential Republicans in everything from gun ownership lists to youth sports rosters and church attendance records. Targeted voters are contacted in person or by telephone, and their issue interests are tracked. Volunteers will follow up with mail, e-mails, telephone calls and other contacts through Nov. 2.

The idea is to have Minnesotans like Hemler chase down and court neighbors and friends. Hemler wears a "W-2004" pin around town and signs up anybody who shows an interest. "The guy who fixed my fridge the other day -- I signed him up. It's what I do," she said while sipping coffee at an Edina diner.

In Arkansas, a phone bank with 15 volunteers searched for GOP voters on a recent Saturday. Ivo Pletka, 23, an Arkansas State University student, set aside a Krispy Kreme doughnut to read from a campaign script: "The president is calling for all hands on deck for help to counter the negative attacks from Democrats," he says.

Organizers are leaving voter registration cards at Arkansas gun shops, churches and state fairs.

Republicans have traditionally been less successful than Democrats at turning out voters because while half of all GOP voters live outside Republican strongholds, the Democratic vote is largely concentrated in urban areas. But under Bush, the GOP has invested more money and manpower on get-out-the-vote operations, a commitment that paid off in the 2002 elections.

At the national headquarters in Virginia, the campaign has lined up 370,000 volunteers, 27,000 precinct chairmen and 1,242 county chairmen in the key states. There are more than 6 million "e-activists" -- 10 times the number Howard Dean (search) recruited online.

The GOP hope is that exurbs like St. Peters are a harbinger of a permanent Republican majority, a prospect that unnerves Democrats. St. Peters native Ell wonders what happened to his tiny, Democratic town.

"The people moving out here, they've got a lot of money or they hope to have a lot of money," Ell said.

And most of them are Republicans.