Former Gov. John Ashcroft stood beneath a shade tree on the town square of Marshfield on Friday, surrounded by about 50 people. They were there to listen to his pitch for the U.S. Senate.
"We need a government that respects the fact that the safety, future and security of the American public is not insured by the bureaucracy but by the creativity and productivity of the people," said Ashcroft, who was on the verge of losing his voice.
Like a traveling salesman, he had visited five towns in southwest Missouri that day. He found the crowds friendly. This is Republican country, and Ashcroft is especially strong in Marshfield. Three years ago, he brought then-President George Bush here for a July 4th celebration.
"I believe the best social program is a job," Ashcroft said. "And the best social service agency is a family."
In the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate, Ashcroft has no serious opposition, while Democratic contenders scramble for that party's nomination. And although Democrats swept five of six statewide races less than two years ago, Republicans are optimistic about Ashcroft's chances in November.
In the past, he has won offices as attorney general and governor by record-setting margins. At 52, his still boyish face is familiar to voters. His supporters say there are no significant negatives associated with Ashcroft, and his campaign will try to paint any Democratic opponent as being too liberal for Missouri.
***** Gospel Songs and Politics
John Ashcroft is a long-sleeved, starched white shirt kind of man. Friends say the "straight arrow" image he projects is genuine. They also say he is a "fiercely competitive individual," be it sports, parlor games or politics.
"People who don't understand that about him do so at their peril," said a friend. "Kenny Rothman learned that in 1984" - referring to Ashcroft's winning the governor's office against then Lt. Gov. Kenneth Rothman.
Friends also say Ashcroft likes to have a good time by pulling out a guitar and singing folk songs. He's a man who loves the outdoors as a fisherman, not as a hunter. And he's been known to water ski on his bare feet or on canoe paddles.
Some who have worked for him say Ashcroft can get angry at times and be difficult to work for.
Ashcroft is also a religious man who sings gospel music and rejects strong drink, profanity and smoking. His father is an Assembly of God minister and educator.
But some who have worked for Ashcroft say he is more complicated than the media notion of "a Bible-thumping, gospel-singing conservative."
"He's got a pretty well thought out explanation for his theological belief in limited government and why government interferes with God-given freedoms," said a former staff member who spoke on the condition that he would not be identified.
***** Private Law Practice
Ashcroft left the governor's office in January 1993 and made an unsuccessful bid to be the chairman of the Republican National Committee. A month later, he joined the Clayton-based law firm of Suelthaus & Kaplan and bought a house in Ballwin. Friends say he went to St. Louis with the idea of practicing law and not to re-enter politics.
"He didn't see any door opening," said a friend and former administration official. That changed unexpectedly when U.S. Sen. John C. Danforth, a Republican, announced that he would not seek re-election.
"I fully expected John Danforth to run again," Ashcroft said in an interview.
Between February 1993 and April of this year, Ashcroft's legal work dealt with securities, banking and business law.
"I think he learned that it's a lot of hard work and effort to run and manage a law firm or any other business," said Gary Cunningham, a partner in the firm. "I think he also enjoyed …