Fort Dodge, Iowa — Jabbing a finger forcefully into the air to underscore his points, Sen. John C. Culver (D) of Iowa was making an all-out campaign to pitch to a small but enthusiastic crowd of volunteers at the newly opened storefront Democratic headquarters here.
"The fundamental issue is whether the voters go forward in Iowa's best progressive tradition or fall back into an ultra-conservative, radical right backwash," he declared with the intensity of one totally immersed in his subject. "We have to stand up and fight back. If we allow ourselves to be defeated by these bully-boy tactics, there's not going to be a district or state safe in the years ahead. . . ."
A few hours later, a hundred miles to the southeast in a park near Ferguson, Iowa, Rep. Charles E. Grassley gave his contrasting view of the campaign as he chatted informally with a group of Iowa conservationists at their annual picnic.
The Republican congressman, who is challenging Mr. Culver for the Iowa Senate seat, said he believes that "Culver is trying to divert attention from his big spending. He calls himself a progressive when he's in Iowa, but 'progressive' is just a term for a liberal running scared. He's the most liberal US senator next to Ted Kennedy. . . . Carter and Culver believe you can keep running the pringting presses without doing any harm to the economy."
Behind all the rhetoric is a race which, many political analysts say, offers voters one of the clearest choices between a liberal and a conservative of any campaign in the country. At a time when other Democratic senators such as George McGovern of South Dakota and Frank Chruch of Idaho have been casting more-conservative votes in Congress in response to what they see as a move to the right among constituents, Culver is standing firmly on his record -- with no apologies. He says his views are "in step" with those of most Iowans.
"People say, 'Are you trying to make a virtue out of this [intransigence]?" -- but I am who I am," he explains. "I've certainly never thought about changing my views on anything in order to win elections."
Although GOP presidential nominee Ronald Reagan has an almost 2-to-1 lead over President Carter in the latest statewide Des Moines Register poll, Culver clings to a one-point lead over his Republican rival. The 1980 race is being compared with the 1978 campaign in which Republican Roger Jepsen scored a surprise victory over Democratic incumbent Sen. Dick Clark. But in that race, the pre-election polls gave Mr. Clark a comfortable lead.
Neither candidate is taking anything for granted in this year's race. Each is portraying the other as an extermist. Grassley, for instance, paints his opponent as a liberal spend-thrift whose ties to Iowa have been weakened by his Harvard University education and his years in Washington.
Culver, on the other hand, charges that his opponent has often voted inconsistently in Washington and is far to the right of Iowa's majority, receiving support from such questionable sources as the oil companies ("I'm proud I don't have a penny from them") and the Christian "new right." Indeed, Senator Culver touts his zero rating and his opponent's 100 percent rating from the Christian Voice, a fundamentalist conservative organization that rates the "morality" of Washington's elected officials according to their votes on issues such as abortion, prayer in the schools, recognition of Taiwan, and teachers unions.
For his part, Grassley tries to walk a delicate line between welcoming conservative religious support and violating separation of church and state.
"If churches want to encourage people to participate in the political process , that's good," he explained in an interview at the picnic table. "It's been a long-term involvement -- it's just that until recently it's only been at the liberal churches that have taken a role. . . ."
Iowa GOP chairman Steve Roberts concedes that the religion-politics tie has "probably excited people the most, positively or negatively," of any issue in the campaign. To the extent it is seen as involving outsiders in Iowa politics, he says, "it probably hurst Chuck."
Certainly Culver, who tends to be most admired by his supporters for his humanitarian stands and his willingness to defend his convictions, has been hitting hard on Grassley's "new right" support, charging that well-intentioned Iowans are being "cynically used" by religious outsiders.