The city of St Louis in the US state of Missouri has long been nicknamed the "gateway" to the nation's West, as one of the main ports of call for migrants in the 19th century before they struck out on wagon trails into the wilds.
St Louis could provide the key to the White House [GALLO/GETTY]
A testament to the city's history is still writ large across its skyline in the form of the Gateway Arch, the graceful monument that soars across the city in tribute to those pioneers.
But Missouri also has its own political place in history as a so-called bellwether state - an almost perfect barometer of US voting preferences, it has voted for the victorious presidential candidate in every election since 1904, except in 1956.
In 2004 for example, George Bush's national vote percentage of 53 per cent was echoed by Missouri's 50 per cent, with John Kerry, his then Democratic rival, polling 46 per cent of the national vote and 48 per cent of Missouri's.
And in 1992, Missouri gave Bill Clinton, the then Democratic candidate, 44 per cent of the vote – compared to 43 per cent nationally - while only 33 per cent voted for his Republican rival, George HW Bush, compared with 37 per cent nationally.
However, as the spotlight turns to the city on Thursday for the widely anticipated vice-presidential debate between Joe Biden, the Democratic senator for Delaware, and Sarah Palin, Alaska's Republican governor, it remains to be seen whether the state remains a true reflection of the US vote for 2008's election.
'Crossroads of America'
Steven S Smith, professor of political science at Washington University in St Louis - where the debate is to take place - says Missouri's political status makes perfect sense because of its geographic location within the US.
"Missouri, just by happenstance, is the crossroads of America, with almost all major elements of public opinion represented in the right proportions ... so it yields an outcome that is very similar to the national income," he told Al Jazeera.
"It's a microcosm of the nation as a whole. A state that is a border state - partly northern and southern - it also has an east-west split, so it really does have a mix of people that represents many parts of the country."
Missouri is also, as with the rest of the US, feeling the financial pinch, with the state's unemployment rates making some grim reading.
In St Louis alone the jobless rate has risen to 7.2 per cent compared with the national average of 6.1 per cent, according to the US bureau of labour statistics. The St Louis Post Dispatch reports that since last August the state has lost as many as 5,300 jobs.
Foreclosures in the city also rocketed by 77 per cent in this year's second financial quarter compared with the same period in 2007, RealtyTrac reported.
"Missourians are no different from others, we are being hit by economic hardships, rising prices, gas prices, food prices, foreclosures on homes, declining benefit packages and health benefits," Kenneth Warren, a professor of administrative law at St Louis University, told Al Jazeera.
"And so economy is foremost on their minds as well as people in the nation as a whole."
It may also be, Warren says, why Obama could have an edge in 2008 in the state, where McCain is currently squeaking ahead by around one or two points.
"The key issues are economic issues and that's why Obama is closing in on polls, including in Missouri," he says
"He is seen to be able to handle economic issues over McCain and the economy dwarfs every other concern. Even foreign policy has taken a back seat as the press has played up the Iraq surge as working."
The state's ethnic demographic is also largely representative of the nation, but the influx of evangelical Christians in recent years may have made the state appear more socially conservative than the US may be as a whole.
Evangelicals represent 37 per cent of the religious make-up of the state, compared with 26 per cent nationally, according to statistics from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
|Evangelical Christians could prove key to
the Missouri vote [AP]
This is, analysts say, partly the result of rural southerners moving north but also because evangelical church leaders found it easier to build a congregation in Missouri's rural areas.
And as the St Louis Beacon website noted over the weekend: "No state has applied the Karl Rove strategy [former Republican strategist and White House deputy chief of staff] - appeal to the evangelical base and get out its vote - more diligently or effectively than has Missouri."
Nonetheless Smith notes that US public opinion has shifted to the more socially liberal side on a number of issues - education, infrastructure, college tuition, healthcare coverage and the financial crisis in recent years under the Bush administration.
And he argues that support for the Democrats is underestimated both nationwide and in Missouri, a factor that could affect November's result - particularly, he says, with younger voters and African-American voters who may not show up on pollsters' radars or on voter rolls but who have been galvanised by Obama's candidacy into political action.
However, with many analysts saying the state of Missouri could be decided by only a point, Smith cautions against calling the state for either side too early, regardless of how the financial crisis or other issues may affect the electorate.
"We've had an entire generation in the Republican camp - but we also have a polarised electorate," he warns.
And while many voters angered by the financial crisis may be leaning towards the Democrats, they may still have major ideological differences with Republicans on foreign policy, security and social issues such as abortion.
"It's not easy to push people into the Democratic camp when they differ from the Republicans on almost everything else."