A gaggle of well-wishers waits anxiously at the local Claire McCaskill for Senate headquarters here as a blue RV pulls off West Sunshine Street.
Duct tape bandages the damaged right rear quarter panel. But if the road-weary campaign vehicle, known as Big Blue, is worse for wear from traveling thousands of miles across Missouri these past several months, the candidate inside seems just fine.
Bounding out the door and into the storefront office, McCaskill is fit, buoyant and raring to go.
"I have friends all over the country," she tells the 75 cheering volunteers who've gathered, "and they're calling me to say, 'Claire, how can this be so close?' "
Everyone laughs. McCaskill has always been good at working a crowd.
Yet despite the confident chortling, everyone there also knows how close this race is.
McCaskill could easily lose her re-election bid come Nov. 6, no matter how flawed her opponent, Republican Rep. Todd Akin, seems to McCaskill's friends out of state.
Thanks to the sluggish economy and her close ties to President Barack Obama, who remains unpopular in the state, McCaskill is vulnerable.
But thanks also to some cunning maneuvering by the first-term incumbent to help pick the person she would run against, McCaskill is far better off than she was a year ago. Back then she was considered the most likely member of the Senate to be cast from office in 2012. Now she has a good shot at winning.
"She's a very shrewd politico," says longtime adviser Steve Glorioso in Kansas City. "She makes her own luck."
She always has. From the time she vied to become high school homecoming queen to her subsequent runs for local, state and national office, McCaskill has been known as a strategic thinker, smart and personable, yet keenly aggressive, always planning several steps ahead.
Her successful attempt to influence the GOP primary is merely the latest example.
Of the three candidates running for the Republican nomination, McCaskill saw Akin as the easiest to beat. So last summer, McCaskill started running ads against all three Republicans in the race, but spent the most bashing Akin.
McCaskill ran commercials saying Akin was too conservative for Missouri. That helped him win, and now he boosts McCaskill's chances with each new controversial statement, starting with his remarks about "legitimate rape."
Politicos say McCaskill's effort to tilt the GOP race in her favor will go down in history as an inspired, bold and risky move.
Which is to say, classic Claire McCaskill.
Not every move McCaskill makes is calculated to advance her politically. She says strong principle led her to endorse Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton in 2008, when she knew that many Democratic women would see it as a betrayal.
Likewise, her steadfast opposition to federal earmarks has put her at odds with some factions within her own party. They'd like her to steer federal money to local projects the way Republican Sen. Kit Bond did, and they find McCaskill's principled stand against federal pork unprincipled.
"I love Claire," says Gwen Grant, president of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City, "but all I ever hear is Claire doesn't help anybody."
Nor is McCaskill without her flubs. At times she's opened herself to criticism for sloppy handling of her personal affairs, most recently in the "air Claire" controversy concerning a private plane.
But in a universe awash with political phonies, McCaskill gets high marks for taking responsibility for her mistakes and being a straight shooter.
"She's not the normal politician that tells you what you want to hear and then blows you off," says Steve Bough, former chairman of the Democratic Party in Jackson County.
It was 1982 when Glorioso took the call from his friend Al Riederer.
"I have a young lady in the office who wants to run for state representative," said Riederer, then Jackson County prosecutor. Would Glorioso like to meet this person, Claire McCaskill, and discuss the challenges of winning a somewhat conservative district south of the Country Club Plaza?
"So I went and here's this really cute blonde, flirty and batting her eyes, looking up at me saying, 'Oh, I've heard so much about you,' " Glorioso recalls. "It was the beginning of a long and wonderful relationship."
McCaskill had charm and knew how to use it. Finding it hard to make ends meet after graduating law school, she talked herself onto a TV game show in the 1970s and came back from Hollywood with cash and prizes, including a fur coat.
That winning personality and her willingness to tirelessly knock on doors helped her win the 42nd District house seat in Kansas City that year.
"I don't think I've ever seen a candidate with that kind of energy," says Democratic operative Woody Overton.
When he first met her, Overton was an aide to U.S. Sen. Tom Eagleton, the Missouri Democrat who would go on to become one of McCaskill's main mentors. Eagleton helped McCaskill's mom get a job with the Census Bureau, and Overton remembers being struck by the daughter's commanding presence.
"Attractive, smart, had a good sense of humor and a good wit," Overton says. "I really liked her. Still do."
The Rolla, Mo., native and University of Missouri grad was only 28 when she decided to run that first time. By then, McCaskill had already made a name for herself. As chief arson prosecutor in Riederer's office, she handled lots of high-profile cases.
McCaskill also had a good feel for politics. Her dad, Bill McCaskill, was state insurance commissioner during the administration of Gov. Warren Hearnes in the late 1960s and early '70s. Her mom, Betty Anne, was the first woman elected to the City Council in Columbia.
In the McCaskill household, politics was a common topic of discussion. Growing up in the small Missouri towns of Houston and Lebanon, Bill and Betty Anne's four kids did the grunt work to help Democrats get elected in what still is a right-leaning part of the state.
Her mom would sit young Claire and her sister at a table and have them stuff envelopes for candidates.
"Whoever stuffed the most in 10 minutes got to use the sponge to seal them," McCaskill joked recently.
From early on, friends and family saw in McCaskill a highly competitive spirit.
So accustomed to success was McCaskill that when she failed to make the high school cheerleading squad it was devastating. So she set an even higher goal -- homecoming queen.
The football team made the selection, and the honor usually went to the girlfriend of one of the top players. But McCaskill began a covert effort to befriend the other players on the squad, paying attention to them and doing favors for their girlfriends.
"It was a subtle and effective campaign, and it worked," according to a 1987 Star Magazine profile headlined "Blond Ambition."It was a foreshadowing of the political career to come. McCaskill went on to win two more two-year terms in the General Assembly after that 1982 race. And she might have run again, but she had began looking for opportunities closer to home that wouldn't take her so far away from her children. (McCaskill has three from her marriage to David Exposito, whom she later divorced.)
Back in Kansas City, she announced her candidacy in 1988 for Jackson County prosecutor on the assumption that her former boss wouldn't run. But when Riederer, the incumbent, and Carol Coe both filed, McCaskill found herself in a three-way race she couldn't win and pulled out.
Two years later, she won a landslide victory over Coe for a seat on the Jackson County Legislature in what some saw as a grudge match, and two years after that she won the prosecutor's job. Her stature grew and established the credentials she said qualified her to become state auditor.
Brushing aside criticisms that she wasn't a certified public accountant as previous auditors had been, McCaskill said having CPA after your name didn't make one a leader.
"What makes you a leader is the willingness to shake things up."
Shake things up she did, winning two terms and calling out state bureaucrats for the trinity of waste, fraud and abuse. She's followed a similar path in the Senate, taking aim at wasteful federal spending, especially in the Defense Department.
"Contracting in the federal government is embarrassingly incompetent," she told The Star editorial board this month.
Critics, meanwhile, have accused McCaskill of hypocrisy for her own missteps.
In 2011, she was accused of charging taxpayers for the private use of an airplane then owned by McCaskill and her husband, Joe Shepard, a wealthy real estate developer in St. Louis. Later it was discovered that they'd failed to pay taxes on the aircraft.
McCaskill's response was typical of how she's handled other personal criticism. She took responsibility for what she said were innocent mistakes and promised she would convince her husband to "sell the damn plane."
It wasn't the first time personal issues rose up to bite her. In her first run for county prosecutor, her opponent in the primary ran an ad accusing her and then-husband Exposito of owning an investment property where drug paraphernalia was found scattered inside.
"It was a devastating ad," Glorioso says, especially for someone like McCaskill, who was promising to get tough on drug offenders. "It started a trend where Claire always had a personal problem in the campaign."
Two years later, Exposito was arrested for smoking marijuana at the Argosy Casino. McCaskill, who was out of town on business at the time of the arrest, painted herself as a wronged spouse.
"I am deeply saddened, disappointed and shocked," she said in a written statement, then quipped: "It's going to take about a month before I can resist the urge to kill him."
Again in the current campaign, she and her current husband are being accused by Akin of profiting from federal stimulus dollars. In TV ads, Akin calls her "corrupt Claire."
McCaskill has denied the allegation, labeling it an unfair, personal attack.
When she set out her career path, becoming a member of the U.S. Senate wasn't on McCaskill's short list of goals.
During long discussions on Glorioso's front porch in the Roanoke neighborhood back in the early days, McCaskill dreamed of becoming the first female governor of Missouri.
But after thumping incumbent Gov. Bob Holden in the 2004 Democratic primary, then losing to Republican Matt Blunt in the general election, she began to reconsider.
National party leaders urged her to run against incumbent Sen. Jim Talent in 2006.
"I told her years ago," Overton says, "Claire, you need to be a U.S. senator because you love to play politics ... You play politics every day in that job."
She narrowly beat Talent, thanks in part to radio talker Rush Limbaugh mocking a commercial actor Michael J. Fox made endorsing McCaskill for her support of stem-cell research.
In the ad, Fox was wracked by tremors from Parkinson's. Limbaugh rolled his eyes, saying Fox was "either off his medication or acting."
Afterwards, tracking polls showed voters shifting to McCaskill.
Despite her early misgivings, she says the job suits her intellectually.
"There's not a much better place for a policy wonk than the U.S. Senate," she says. "I can go to getting into the weeds on tech policy, to the Federal Aviation Administration, to land-based missile systems, and that's all before noon."
From the outset, McCaskill has cultivated the image of someone eager to break down partisan barriers, reaching out to Republicans whenever possible.
"My mandate is to be an independent," she said the morning after the votes were counted. Recently she has worked with Republicans like Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, a fellow member on the Senate Armed Services Committee. GOP partisans point out that she still votes with her party 82 percent of the time -- but that is one of the lowest percentages among members of the Democratic caucus.
As Big Blue motored toward Kansas City one night this month, McCaskill said her moderate record reflects her state's values.
"Missouri is a 50-50 state," she says, "It has been since the Civil War."
One or two percentage points can swing an election, though. McCaskill knows that her time in the Senate could be coming to a close. If not this election, then perhaps six years from now.
At age 59, she's told fellow Democrats at various functions that this will likely be her last run for office.
When she does leave politics, McCaskill says she'll have no shortage of things to engage her energy and curiosity.
Philanthropy for one, and she can afford to make a difference there. Through her marriage to Shepard, McCaskill is one of the richest members of Congress.
Also, "I wouldn't mind being one of those talking heads speaking truth to power on one of those cable shows that I like to look down my nose at sometimes," she says.
Writing books is on her list, as well. Nonfiction. Maybe a book that encourages women to take risks the way she has. Perhaps others on the subject she knows best, politics.
"This race is really interesting," McCaskill says as rush hour traffic whooshes past on U.S. 71.
Yes, one thing's for sure, she says: "When it's over, I will definitely write about it."