On a grey and windy afternoon last week, a banker, a barber and an insurance broker stopped for a chat in front of the Brand Plumbing and Heating store in Sully, an Iowa town of 841 people in the heart of Middle America. They had few kind words for politicians. “You can put them all in a bag and shake them up,” said the insurance agent, 55-year-old Clarence Van Der Zyl, leaning his ample frame against the shop window. “They all come out the same.” But at least President George Bush won praise for his handling of the Persian Gulf crisis. “I think he handled the war thing as well as you could,” said Van Der Zyl, adding that he would cast his ballot for Bush in the 1992 presidential election over any Democratic contender—particularly if that contender was Iowa Senator Thomas Harkin. "He’s too liberal,” declared Van Der Zyl. The banker, Steven Fopma, 29, chipped in: “He’s a free spender.” And the barber, 69-year-old Kenneth Ratcliff, agreed: “That’s right, he’d sell the White House.”
Harkin and other Democratic candidates have little time, by U.S. political standards, to win over the Van Der Zyls, the Fopmas and the Ratcliffs of America. Farmers were already harvesting their sun-singed cornfields by the time Harkin announced his presidential candidacy at a fund-raising steak-fry on a farm near Des Moines last week—just five months before the Iowa caucuses in February and 10 months before the party’s nominating convention in New York City in July. Only two other Democrats have formally entered the race: former Massachusetts senator Paul Tsongas declared in April, and Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder announced on Sept. 13. Nebraska Senator Robert Kerrey, Arkansas Gov. William Clinton and former California governor Edmund Gerry) Brown are expected to declare later this month.
By September four years ago, seven Democratic and she Republican candidates stalked the tidy towns and rolling farms of Iowa. Set between the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, the proverbial heartland state has been important in presidential campaigns since 1972, when Iowa Democrats began holding the earliest contest in the nation. In the process, Iowans have become as adept at dispensing political wisdom to reporters as they are at planting com and soybeans. The 1988 campaign brought an estimated $48 million to the state, a bonanza that will not be repeated this year because of the comparatively brief electioneering. And Iowa’s Democratic chairman, John Roehrick, complained that the campaign’s late start has “been a detriment—it’s very hard to pound home the message in just six months to a year.”
The Democratic contenders are focusing on domestic economic issues rather than challenging Bush on his strength—foreign policy. Recent opinion polls show that more than 75 per cent of Americans
believe that the economy is in a recession. But so far, Democrats have been unable to tap into that vein of discontent: Bush’s approval rating hovers around 70 per cent. And prominent Democrats, including Representative Richard Gephardt of Missouri and Senator Albert Gore of Tennessee, have said that they will not run. Said Hubert Winebrenner, a public administration professor at Des Moines’s Drake University: “The first team has decided to sit this one out.”
Some analysts claim that the disintegration of the Soviet Union has given Democrats a political opportunity. With the once-mighty enemy in tatters,
Democrats can now make a convincing argument for cutting the Pentagon budget in favor of social programs, a proposal that has provoked a flag-waving conservative backlash in the recent past. “Their one hope,” said David Yepsen, a political writer for The Des Moines Register, “is that the collapse of communism removes national security concerns.” Picking at his baked potato at a fast-food court in a Des Moines mall, 50-year-old systems programmer David Eastman conceded that “slashing the defence budget is a good idea.” But he added: “Taking care of the deficit is where the money should be going.” Winebrenner said that it will, in fact, be almost impossible for anyone to defeat Bush. Although Democrats occupied the White House for all but eight years from 1933 to 1969, Republicans have won five of the past six presidential elections. At the Harkin steak-fry, 40-year-old physician Deborah Turner sat on a picnic bench supported by bales of straw. “When John Kennedy was killed,” said Turner, “we took a wound that I’m not sure we ever recovered from.”
In his declaration speech, Harkin pledged to resurrect the days of Democratic glory. Wearing a casual blue shirt and cowboy boots, he strode onto a stage adorned with American flags in front of a crowd of about 3,000 enthusiastic supporters. He recalled president Franklin Roosevelt, who came to power in 1933 promising to reverse greed-driven economics. And Harkin attacked Republicans for providing incentives to big business on the theory that wealth will “trickle down” to workers. “We have been waiting 10 long years for some of that money to trickle down, and we haven't even had a drizzle,” he said. “Hell, I’d settle for a heavy dew.” Harkin said that his plan is to divert defence money into education, transit systems, roads and health care, to enable wealth to “percolate up for a while.” And he launched a populist assault on the President, whom he derisively refers to by his full four names. “I’m here to tell you that George Herbert Walker Bush has feet of clay,”
On the back roads of lowa
thundered Harkin, adding: “And I’m going to take a hammer to them.” Bom in Cumming, Iowa, to a coal-miner father and a Slovenianimmigrant mother, Harkin, now 51, used a military scholarship to put himself through Iowa State University. After graduating in 1962, he enlisted as a navy pilot and ferried aircraft to and from Vietnam. He married Ruth Raduenz in 1968, and they have two daughters, Amy, 15, and Jenny, 9. The Harkins both attended law school in Washington before returning to Iowa, where he won a seat in the House of Representatives in 1974, and then in the Senate in 1984. Although a Roman Catholic, he supports the right to abortion. He sponsored legislation that bans discrimination against the disabled and he voted against the use of force in the Gulf crisis. Harkin’s critics describe him as an abrasive demagogue. But he clearly appeals to liberals and other Iowans attracted by his rise from the poverty of his youth. “He wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth,” said John Paul, a grizzled 66-year-old retired welder who once worked on pipelines, but who now spends most days in Baxter's bar in Kellogg, east of Des Moines. “Harkin’s a better man than the lot we got now.” Just southeast of Kellogg, Donald Grunhaupt sat in front of his scuffed, once-white farmhouse, pondering whom to support in the election. “I’m not a big political person,” said the 34-year-old Grunhaupt. “Those cows over there are what I’m big on—but it seems to me we’re spending too much money across the pond and there’s not enough left for the programs in the United States.” Scratching his black border collie, Abby, behind the ears, he added: “If it was tomorrow, I’d have to lean towards Harkin because of what he’s done for the working-class person.” Standing on her front porch in Newton, 10 km to the west, Ginger LaKose praised Harkin’s promise to spend more on schools. A 30-yearold mother of two, she ridiculed Bush for calling himself the “education president.” Said LaKose: “That’s complete hogwash—he’s shirked his responsibilities. It’s time for some new blood in higher office.” To that end, Harkin left the steak-fry last week to launch his campaign in New Hampshire, where, analysts say, Democrats are likely to wage the fiercest early battle this year. Harkin’s advantage as a native son makes it unlikely that other challengers will devote much energy to Iowa. “The
biggest story coming out of here,” said the Register's Yepsen, “will be if someone comes in and upsets him.” The candidate most likely to challenge Harkin on his home turf is Kerrey of neighboring Nebraska. Both men have support among unionists, who provide funding and form the core of the Democrats’ envelopestuffing, door-knocking campaign teams. “Harkin,” said Raymond Sullivan, business manager for the plumbers and steamfitters union in Des Moines, “is on a better track than any Democratic candidate we’ve had in recent history.” But Sullivan said that he has not yet decided whom to vote for. He added: “Kerrey is an excellent candidate.” Although Kerrey’s voting record is nearly as liberal as Harkin’s, his status as a wounded veteran (he lost part of his right leg in Vietnam) may attract some conservative voters, and his on-again, off-again affair with movie star Debra Winger could lend glamor to his campaign. Meanwhile, Wilder and Clinton are expected to appeal to more moderate voters. And, said Mack Shelley, a political scientist at Iowa State University in Ames, “they could end up splitting an anti-liberal, stop-Harkin type of coalition.” Another moderate, Tsongas, has waged a five-month campaign without gaining significant attention. And Brown,-once known as Governor Moonbeam for his unconventional behavior, has yet to levitate his candidacy. Black activist Jesse Jackson, who had hinted that he would stay out of the race, said last week that he may reconsider. And Shelley said that Jackson, the most liberal candidate in two previous campaigns, “would upset the applecart” by pulling voters away from Harkin. Early in the season, the Democratic race is as volatile as an Iowa thunderstorm. While Democrats across the nation agonize over their nominee, the Republicans, said Randall Enwright, the party’s executive director in Iowa, “would be tickled to death to have Harkin win—he would be easy to take swings at.” But the scrappy Iowa senator has vowed to fight back. Declared Drake University's Winebrenner: “The least you can say about Tom Harkin is that he added a little bit of excitement to an otherwise dull campaign.” After a long political drought, Iowans and other Americans find that refreshing. MARY NEMETH in Des Moines
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