Chicago — While the Carter-Reagan battle over national defense holds the national spotlight, a less-publicized skirmish is being waged by the candidates' surrogates to gain the votes of what may be a key interest group -- America's farmers and agribusinessmen.
The farm vote is small -- 3 percent of the population. But Ronald Reagan's chief farm policy strategist, Sen. Roger W. Jepsen (R) of Iowa, who was in Chicago recently to address agribusiness leaders, insists that 3 percent is the percentage that "is probably going to be the winning margin in this election."
So like Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland, who is trudging through corn fields and Farm Bureau conference rooms on President Carter's behalf, Senator Jepsen is taking Mr. Reagan's case to the farmers -- and to the large group of farm machinery manufacturers, food processors, and agricultural marketing organizations all dependent on a prosperous farming community.
"Farmers simply can't afford four more years" of the Carter administration, Jepsen says.
The senator says that a Reagan administration "would end the [Soviet grain] embargo immediately" and "would take a broom and sweep out the Department of Agriculture."
Jepsen explains that Mr. Carter's Jan. 4 embargo on new grain sales to the Soviets is only one part of Carter administration policies that have seriously undermined overseas confidence in the United States as a dependable supplier. He says he knows of emerging nations with "less-democratic governments" that have gone to other suppliers for agricultural products and industrial machinery because they fear that the US might arbitrarily cut off supplies on human-rights grounds.
Jepsen acknowledges that agriculture exports have increased. But he feels that this is largey due to poor crops overseas, adding that "our exports after the embargo have been pretty good, but they're not near what they would have been without the embargo."
He feels that the Soviets have been able to buy their grain elsewhere without great difficulty or expense.
"Argentina has doubled normal sales to Russia and has replaced us as the Russians' primary supplier," he states. He says the US embargo has not been supported by other Western nations, adding that although Australia and Canada agreed to limit sales to "normal and traditional levels," "their 'normal and traditional levels' have meant all they could squeeze through their ports."
Senator Jepsen has turned down Secretary Bergland's request for a debate on agricultural policies saying he has no intention of helping Mr. Bergland gain more yardage with that football.
But this has not stopped Bergland from publicizing the administration's case. Speaking earlier this month to an agribusiness group in Dallas, the agriculture secretary strongly defended the grain embargo as both effective in cutting grain supplies to the Soviets and necessary because "we cannot do business as usual with those who practice military aggression."