By Libby Quaid

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP)--Aware their state is a presidential battleground, Missouri farm groups and shippers have started an ad campaign targeting Al Gore but aimed at getting President Clinton to change his mind about vetoing a huge energy and water bill.

In radio ads that began airing, listeners are urged to call Gore, the announcer saying, "Don't let them strip away our flood protection." The group planned to kick off the ad campaign Oct. 5 at a news conference in Jefferson City, MO.

At issue is a prohibition in the $23.6 billion spending bill against allowing the Missouri River to return to a seasonal ebb and flow, a battle pitting environmentalists and upstream recreation advocates in Montana and the Dakotas against commercial shipping interests downstream.

Calling it "deeply flawed" and anti-environmental, Clinton vowed to veto the measure when Congress gave final approval. The Administration wants to ease controlled flows along the Missouri to protect endangered shorebirds and fish; foes argue the result could be flooding and the end of barge traffic along the 2,500-mile waterway.

"The Missouri River is simply more valuable when managed as a river than when managed as a barge canal," Paul Zeph, executive director of Iowa Audubon, said Oct. 3. "A vote for this rider is a vote for the extinction of at least three species and probably many more."

It's become a partisan fight in Washington, but not in the presidential swing state of Missouri, where even Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan--who is challenging U.S. Sen. John Ashcroft--and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt are protesting the Administration plan.

Republicans anticipate that a veto will help their candidates in Missouri. "Make our day," House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-TX, said about the veto. "He loses Missouri to Bush."

The sponsor of the prohibition, Sen. Christopher Bond, R-MO, said this is Gore's chance to intervene.

"Al Gore said last night he would fight for the little guy. We'll see if he's a talker or a doer," Bond said, referring to Oct. 3's presidential debate. "He could get the president to drop this terrible veto threat."

Backed by traditional GOP supporters--an agribusiness and shipping group, corn and soybeen growers and a flood protection group--the Farm Bureau coalition is spending $10,000 for three days' worth of radio commercials in towns along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.

"We believe the vice president could very well be the key," Missouri Farm Bureau spokesman Estill Fretwell said. "Certainly this is an issue of extreme importance to Missouri, and certainly with Gore being a candidate, he should be interested."

Gore campaign spokesman Dan Pfeiffer said, "Al Gore supports the Administration's position on this matter."

A similar coalition in neighboring Iowa is spending $5,000 on river ads that ask folks to call the White House but not Gore, an Iowa Farm Bureau spokeswoman said. Downstream, the 2,500-mile waterway flows past Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas and through Missouri before emptying north of St. Louis at the Mississippi River.

The Missouri spot says: "The White House is threatening to veto legislation designed to prevent flooding on the Missouri River. Don't they know the damage flooding does to families, communities, jobs and property?"

"This is not a partisan issue in Missouri, and it shouldn't be a partisan issue in Washington, DC. Don't let them strip away our flood protection. Call Vice President Gore at 202-456-2336. People's lives are much more important than politics."

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