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The view from Iowa: give Reagan a chance

By Lucia MouatStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 2, 1982



Palo Alto County, Iowa

A Democratic landslide in the next election?

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Not if the views of voters in this county--consistently on the winning side in every presidential election since 1896--are any indicator.

Here in northwest Iowa, where the shoots of newly planted corn are just starting to push through the rich black soil, there are few signs as yet of any Farm Belt revolt against the GOP.

Not that this was ever wildly enthusiastic Reagan country. In the 1980 election, the President got a comfortable margin of more than 500 votes from the county's 7,144 registered voters. Jimmy Carter edged out Jerry Ford here by roughly the same margin in 1976. But in 1980, many farmers said they were voting against Mr. Carter and his grain embargo rather than for former Iowa sports announcer ''Dutch'' Reagan.

That's why it comes as something of a surprise to a visitor--listening to widespread grumbling about the grim state of the economy and those high interest rates--that President Reagan is viewed as a man apart. Congress and the Federal Reserve Board net the lion's share of the blame.

''Reagan did what he had to do, but he's only one man,'' Bill Fisher, a farmer in Curlew, observes. ''If Congress would show as much leadership as Reagan, we could still turn this thing around.''

There is a widespread feeling that Mr. Reagan and his fellow Republicans deserve more time before they are judged.

''I think he needs a longer time to try his policies - his program hasn't been given a chance,'' says Elmer Reinders, a retired farmer from Mallard, sitting in the waiting room of the local grain elevator.

''Most people realize deep down that something had to be done and that we've got to stay with it and give it a little time,'' agrees the Republican county chairman, Philip Stillman.

Jane Whitmore, editor of the biweekly newspaper in Emmetsburg, the county seat, summarizes the view of many Palo Alto voters this way:

''I think the farmers were looking for something new when they voted for Reagan. I'm sure not everybody agrees with everything he's done, but they were hoping for the best, and there's still a certain amount of optimism around here.''

One reason that Palo Alto County voters may be less critical of Mr. Reagan than those in other parts of the Midwest these days: The current recession has not hit many of them as hard. Many small businesses face large inventories and reduced sales; but so far most bankruptcies and plant closings have hit outside the county. A quick check of the number of residents on public aid shows no marked increase from totals a year ago.

And farmers here, while complaining that grain prices are down and that constant rains have delayed soybean planting, are by and large still in business.

''Some young farmers are going broke, but it isn't as bad as I thought it was going to be,'' says Tom Arndorfer, manager of the West Bend Elevator in Mallard. ''It's tough going, but it's no disaster.''

Yet many, like Ed Norland, vice-president of an Emmetsburg bank, insist that the real testing time for local farmers is yet to come and that the current downward trend in grain prices does not bode well for the future. Certainly everyone is keeping a much closer eye on his own assets.

''There will have to be some improvement or there could be more foreclosures, '' he says.

Certainly jobs in the county are increasingly hard to come by. Manpower specialist Shirley Hoveland of the Jobs Service office in Emmetsburg says more older workers rather than teens are contracting to do corn detasseling this summer. Many farmers have told her they intend to rely more on their own children and neighbors for help.

''Money is just tight as a tick,'' says Jan Schaad, who with her husband runs Emmetsburg radio station KEMB. ''Everybody's tightening their belts and holding on - it's a real scary time.''

''A lot of people around here don't think we've hit the bottom yet,'' says John Brown, a lawyer and the Democratic county chairman. ''I think everybody, including the Republicans, think Reagan has gone too far. Anybody who's a Democrat in Iowa is going to be looking good.''

Reagan supporter Vivian Keerbs, owner of the Duck Inn in Mallard, a popular eating stop for area farmers who drive their pickup trucks to the door, says: ''We may have to go into a depression before we come out of this, but I think Reagan is on the right track. I knew it was going to be rough.''

But there is considerable concern here as to just how much rougher things can get.