Salena Zito

INDEPENDENCE, Mo. – In front of the remarkably preserved home of President Harry Truman in Independence, Mo., a young National Park Service tour guide suggests that if you want “great boots at a good price, and to be treated like family,” you must head out U.S. 24 to Higginsville.

Due east, the highway gives way to 44 miles of farms along rolling prairies crossed occasionally by county roads and Missouri River tributaries.

In 1926 when routes were given names, not numbers, this 1,500-mile east-west highway was named Telegraph Road, for the wires paralleling it.

Jeanette Dobson was born and raised here in what residents like to call “the Heartland of the Midwest.” She has worked at city hall “since I was 18. I married a farmer. I knew I wasn’t going to leave.” Nor did she want to.

Dobson sees the effects of the recession here but, she says, people in places like Higginsville always adapt and carry on.

She pays only peripheral attention to what’s going on politically on the national level; she says she always votes but never along party lines. When she votes this year, she won’t go for some slick narrative but “will vote for what is best for my family and for my community.”

When voters walk into their precincts in 20-odd days for the midterm election, they won’t think about “saving” Democrats or “helping” Republicans. They will think about themselves.

It’s a phenomenon that President Obama has failed to understand, that his strategists cannot wrap their arms around – and that Republican leaders better school themselves in immediately.

As one unabashed liberal says: “When the Democrats took over in 2008 in the midst of the worst economic crisis in our lifetime, I just knew they would … show everyone they knew what they were doing. Two years later, I couldn’t have been more disappointed or more wrong.”

Billboards for Kleinschmidts’ Western Wear line Interstate 70 for miles in both directions. Yet personal endorsements, such as the one given by the park service guide, bring more people to the store.

“Our best advertisement is our people who work here,” says Tim Short, husband of Charlene Kleinschmidts, whose father started the store 35 years ago.

Kleinschmidts is western-boot heaven; 25,000 sizes, shapes and colors line its walls. It was located first in the small town of Corder, about five miles east of here, then on Higginsville’s main street; 20 years ago, the family business grew to its present location along the interstate.

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.