Emmetsburg, Iowa — 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.
''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.
Both presidential contenders are known commodities here. ''We know them both so well,'' says Duck Inn owner Vivian Keerbs, a Republican. She notes that Mondale is a ''local boy'' who grew up in nearby Elmore, Minn. Democratic leaders here insist that Geraldine Ferraro is an asset to the ticket, but they admit they don't think the fact that she's a woman will lure any of the county's independent voters to the Democratic side. Indeed, some of the farmers sitting around the Mallard grain elevator and in the Duck Inn surmise that Ms. Ferraro ''doesn't know Iowa, and probably has never seen a cow.'' And Lorrie McNally of Emmetsburg says she hears women say they're not going to vote for Mondale because of Ferraro's inexperience.
About one-third of the county's more than 7,000 registered voters are independents, the group traditionally credited with putting Palo Alto's vote on the winning side each time. But independent Liz Champman, who, with her husband, runs a seed-and-feed business just south of Emmetsburg, registered as a Democrat for the first time this year so she could vote in the primaries.
''I just had to say something,'' she says. ''I still consider myself an independent, but I can't vote Republican as long as the far right influences the party as much as it does. ... At least Mondale attacks the issues and has something to say.''
Registered Democrats here outnumber Republicans by about 2 to 1, but some Democrats may shift parties this time over the abortion issue. Emmetsburg, named for Irish patriot Robert Emmet, whose statue and a piece of the Blarney Stone stand in the town square, and Palo Alto County itself both have strong Irish Roman Catholic roots. In 1960 this was one of only five counties in Iowa that supported John F. Kennedy. Democrat Kibbie says Republicans now are ''playing the abortion issue to the hilt.''
But it is for general economic reasons that Reagan will be getting the support of several Emmetsburg businessmen. Tom Pico, owner of the Suburban Motel , notes that he and his wife, Shirley, felt ''something had to be done'' to curb federal domestic spending, even though their business has dropped off as a result of the federal cutbacks.
''The economy here got pretty bad ... but I think things (nationally) are going in the right direction now,'' says Mike Banwart, owner of an electronics shop. Mark Plummer, manager of the Riviera Movie Theater, which was packing in customers at $1 apiece to see ''Indiana Jones,'' says he voted for Jimmy Carter in 1980, but will switch to Reagan. ''I've always had the view that the Republicans are the rich man's party, but when the rich man makes money, he has to hire the poor man.''
Jane Whitmore, editor of Emmetsburg's biweekly newspaper, says she thinks the county may be leaning ''slightly'' toward Mr. Reagan. ''I think people around here are basically optimistic,'' she says, noting that a new sidewalk-replacement program and sewer repair effort in the community have sparked renewed local pride.
But free-lance cartoonist David Carpenter says he is convinced Palo Alto County is going to lose its bellwether status this year by voting Democratic. ''I feel sure the county is going to go for Mondale, and I don't think he stands a chance nationally.'' KEMB's John Schad is not so sure: ''Mondale appears to be strong in this area, ... (but) I have every confidence that the magic that exists in Palo Alto County will continue.
''Besides, we have a 50-50 chance.''