Bellwether Iowa county leans toward Mondale
That still-strong lead that President Reagan has nationally, according to most polls, is nowhere to be seen here in rural Palo Alto County. The reason that fact may be significant is that voters here have been casting their ballots on the winning side in every Presidential election since 1896.Skip to next paragraph
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''I think Reagan has a little edge now, but I don't think it's firm or any real margin,'' concedes Palo Alto County's onetime GOP chairman, Ed Norland. As vice-president of the Iowa Trust and Savings Bank here, he has plenty of first-hand experience with traditionally conservative farmers who are seeking loans or having trouble paying them back.
''It looks very close between Mondale and Reagan, and it could go either way, '' agrees lawyer John D. Brown, Democratic chairman for the county.
But even Walter Mondale's strongest supporters here are skeptical that farmer dissatisfaction with Reagan will result in a Democratic victory here. ''Mondale's got a lot of work to do to cut Reagan's lead,'' says Democrat Mike Flannigan during a lunch break at McNally's Bake Shop in Emmetsburg, where daily discussions around a large table often turn to politics. ''I think he handled himself very well in the debate, but I still think he's got to get tough - there hasn't been enough mudslinging,'' says Lorrie McNally.
Flat Palo Alto County is definitely farming country. Mile after mile of dry, brown corn stalks await harvesting, and radio and television ads reserve their catchiest tunes for feed additives and farm insurance. A lighted sign in front of one of Emmetsburg's banks displays the latest in crop prices (corn $2.67; beans $5.67), where the time and temperature might appear in another city.
''We're 100 percent dependent on the farm sector,'' notes John Schad, president and manager of KEMB, Emmetsburg's radio station. ''And farmers aren't out there buying combines or coming into town with the rolls of money you normally see in harvest season.''
While the weather has not been as bad here in the Northwestern part of the state as further south, crop prices have moved lower recently, land values are sharply down, and many farmers, particularly younger ones, are heavily in debt.
''In this county, the farmers will vote for Mondale when it comes right down to it - they're bad enough off financially that they're going to vote for a change,'' insists John P. Kibbie, a former Democratic state senator who farms 800 acres of corn and soybeans near Emmetsburg.
And Dale Schleisman, who owns a cement-and-gravel business in town that once relied on farmers for 85 percent of its business, says he gave Reagan a try in 1980 but won't do it again. ''The poor guy trying to hang on is having a heck of a time, and Reagan hasn't helped.''
It is true that farmers in Palo Alto County complain about Reagan. But they also complain about Mondale and what some see as his free-spending habits. The relative merits of the candidates' rescue packages for farmers rarely come up for discussion. The implication is that votes will be cast on the basis of a broader judgment.
''This is going to be an important election, with the Supreme Court appointments and all,'' says Carl Heldt, a corn and soybean farmer from nearby Mallard, who is having breakfast with other farmers at the Duck Inn there. He will vote for Mr. Reagan, he says. ''I'm a conservative. I couldn't vote liberal and go back to those days.''
Wayne Trug, a corn and soybean farmer sitting next to him at the counter, agrees: ''I'm a Republican - I don't think Mondale has that much to offer.'' But a number of others here insist they are undecided. ''I might change my mind 100 times yet,'' says Bob Hamerlink, who says he is ''dissatisfied'' with both candidates, but will vote for one so that he'll have the ''right'' to complain later.