In Missouri, a perennial swing state with a deeply divided electorate, it has long been one of the politically delicate calculations a candidate can make.
The question is not what position to take on abortion, economic stimulus or health care, though those issues have all proved thorny enough. It is how to pronounce the state name: "Missouree" or "Missouruh."
Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat who is running for re-election, has endured accusations of flip-flopping for using both phrasings at a virtual 1-to-1 ratio, sometimes in the same sentence, a trait that prompted a former spokesman to call him "oratorically ambidextrous."
His opponent, Dave Spence, a Republican businessman, said he is more consistent, exclusively using the "Missouree" pronunciation.
But the campaign has also hedged: A biographical video features his wife saying "he's going to be a great governor for the state of Missouruh."
Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat locked into one of the nation's most closely watched Senate races, typically uses "Missouree" in her advertisements. But when outside conservative groups sponsored ads attacking her in February, the campaign responded with spots that use the other pronunciation.
The campaign of Todd Akin, the Republican congressman running against her, called using both pronunciations "cheesy" even though he has waffled himself, saying "Missouruh has a choice" when he announced his candidacy.
And the differences extend to the top of the ticket. Mitt Romney, who is favored to win Missouri, asked the crowd at a campaign event in the state during the primary race, "How many say Missouree like I do?" President Barack Obama has favored "Missouruh" in his appearances.
The debate serves as a low-stakes case study for the age-old art of political pandering that alternately endearing and condescending process of cultivating the "just like you" appeal that remains a central part of running for office. Other linguistic examples include presidential candidates dropping G's before Southern audiences or changing the cadence of their speech before black audiences.
There are states where locals cringe at mangling by outsiders (such as Nev-ah-da or Or-e-gone) or where regional accents signal deep local roots (New Yawk and Loo-si-ana). But Missouri is the only state where there is fundamental, if mostly good natured, disagreement about saying the state's name.
Scholars believe the name "Missouri" however it is pronounced comes from a word the Illinois Indians used to describe a neighboring tribe: "one who has a canoe." But historical reasons for the split have been a matter of considerable debate among linguists and historians.
Some believe it started as an east-west split, with St. Louis favoring "ee" and Kansas City "uh." Popular belief holds that the southern half of the state is "Missourah," with Interstate 70 serving as a sort of Mason-Dixon line, and still others contend that "Missouree" is city, "Missouruh" is country.
Increasingly, however, the divide is not geographical but generational.
"The 'Missouruh' pronunciation carries a degree of stigma as incorrect or at least old-fashioned," said Matthew Gordon, an associate professor of English who studies linguistics at the University of Missouri. "So many young people may avoid it even if they come from families in which the older generations used that pronunciation."
Yet there is one demographic group that cannot seem to scrub the "Missouruh" name from their speech.
"A high percentage of our politicians say 'Missouruh,"' mused Lyle Anderson, the mayor of Lebanon, Mo., who prefers the other construction.
Such politicians include, historically, President Harry S. Truman, a Democrat, and more recently, former Sens. John Ashcroft and Christopher Bond, both Republicans. Today, most of the state's top officials stick mostly to "Missouree," but they sprinkle the other ending into the occasional speech, especially when they're introducing themselves or speaking to rural audiences. Strategists say that's just good Missouri manners.
"It's almost like a courtesy, when you're in somebody else's home, to relate to them," said Steve Glorioso, a Democratic consultant in Kansas City who has advised those on the stump to adjust the pronunciations to match the audiences.
Jeff Roe, a longtime Republican operative in the state, said he has never discussed pronunciation with a Missourian candidate, but advises those from out of state: "Stay safe and say 'Missouruh."' (Indeed, in the Senate race, most of the television ads using the soft vowel, known to linguists as a schwa, come from national political action committees.)
In 1907, a resolution introduced in the state House to establish the "only true pronunciation as that received by the native Indians" a third way, Mih-SOO-rih failed by voice vote. In 1970, Gov. Warren E. Hearnes announced to some fanfare that both pronunciations are correct. "The 'Missouruh' pronunciation carries a degree of stigma as incorrect or at least old-fashioned."
MATTHEW GORDON, an associate professor of English and student of linguistics