The small talk in Iowa is all about big politics

`THE day before Bush came, his public relations lady asked the band to learn the Yale fight song and asked us to make up a dance to it,'' says Grinnell High School cheerleader Stacy Hasley about the vice-president's visit in December. ``So we made up one at 7 a.m. Then she wanted us to paint big welcome posters, so we did that. But they weren't enough, so we painted some more. ``Then when Bush came, we got up to do our dance and the Secret Service stopped us. We tried again later, and they stopped us again. So we gave up.''

Stacy was pretty unruffled by all the hoopla. Such is life in Iowa, where having three Chinook helicopters land on your high school lawn and having to clean out your gym locker for the vice-president of the United States is no big deal.

Candidates and news-media people see Iowa as a barometer of the country's presidential leanings. And Iowans in many cases are learning to see themselves that way, too.

Grinnell (pop., 8,600) is a candidate's dream. It's got farms, it's got light industry, and it's got one of the leading private colleges in the country. Situated between Des Moines and Iowa City, Grinnell is just a quick stop off Interstate 80. All the Democratic candidates have been through the town; Jack Kemp and George Bush have also made a stop.

It may especially be a Democratic candidate's dream. Mr. Kemp was booed at Grinnell College for his stand on abortion, and farmers are said to be turning Democrat in droves.

``My vote counts beyond my precinct this time,'' says Eloise Raffety, who runs a farm with her husband. ``If one guy comes out ahead, people in New Hampshire might look at that and it might influence them. The whole country is looking at us.''

Walking along Main Street, that's hard to figure. There are no candidates glad-handing with practiced smiles, no television crews with rude microphones.

But dig a little deeper, talk to the town residents, and you'll find that the small percentage who do participate in the caucuses take their role in choosing a president seriously.

Grinnell is a small enough town that supermarket baggers carry groceries out to shoppers' cars, phone numbers have just four digits, and the 5 p.m. rush hour is jokingly referred to as a ``rush minute.''

So when A.J. Pinder, the Grinnell Herald-Register editor, asked Maynard Raffety if he and Eloise would mind putting up a reporter who wanted to get a farm family's point of view, his only hesitation was that he had to check with ``the high command.'' She said yes.

The Raffetys live six miles outside of town on a 600-acre family farm. Although they held on through the recent farm crisis, Mr. Raffety says his net worth, like everyone else's, dropped quite a bit. But he has mixed feelings about the current farm program that pays farmers for setting aside part of their fields.

``The present program is too cumbersome and too expensive,'' he said, over a chicken and baked-potato dinner. ``I'm not happy sitting in the ASC office [American Soil Conservation, where he picks up his government check], not happy getting a third of my income from the government. Not as a permanent solution. I'd like to produce without restriction in a fair market.''

Raffety, who is supporting Richard Gephardt, organized a coffee for Rep. Alan Wheat (D) of Missouri, one of the 40 members of Congress who flew to Iowa to stump for the candidate. ``Gephardt is honest,'' says Raffety. `` My No. 1 hope is that we get an honest president.''

The next day at the coffee, held in the basement of the Malcolm Farmer Cooperative Elevator, the farmers talked about contra aid, education, social security, and whether a two-year term for US representatives was enough. Mr. Wheat said later, ``This may be the best state in the country to have the first caucus. Iowans are committed, they do their homework, and they know the issues.''

That's true for more than farmers. Bob Globus, proprietor of J.D.'s Restaurant, sits down for a few minutes during the lunch rush to talk about his switch from Paul Simon to Bruce Babbitt. ``Babbitt is the only candidate addressing the issues,'' he says, his eyes scanning the crowds milling in. ``I was an early supporter of Simon, but as he became a front-runner, he became safe. Babbitt is tough and bright; someone said that he single-handedly dragged Arizona into the 20th century.''

Stacy Hasley, in her orange, black, and white cheerleader's outfit, is sitting in the packed student union at Grinnell College, waiting to hear Mr. Gephardt speak. ``I registered to vote at the earliest time. I've been waiting [to vote] a long time.''

The Sit-N-Knit club, made up of faculty, farm wives, and retired teachers, is a good place to hear pungent and learned opinions from the women of Grinnell.

``The candidates coming in, it's fun,'' says Marilyn Strovers, sitting on the floor in a denim skirt and casting on some wispy aqua yarn. ``Even though you know they'll go away Feb. 9 and never be seen again, it's entertaining. It's a long, cold winter in Iowa and it gives you something to talk about besides the weather. People are concerned about the economy: local, state, and national. The stock market crash hasn't gone away.''

Some of the other knitters chimed in: ``I'm supporting [Robert] Dole because I'm afraid the Democrats will have someone I can't vote for. I can't stand that Bush man.''

``People are mad at [Gary] Hart. He's old enough to know better. If he doesn't take that [marriage] contract seriously, he's not likely to take contracts others seriously.''

``Pete du Pont's people called, I don't know how many times, and always asked for Max. `When will Max be home?' Don't I count? So many candidates walk into a bank or whatever and shake the manager's hand and ignore everyone else.''

Over at the college, you can almost hear the students sharpening their questions. All the candidates who have come through town except Mr. Bush have appeared at the college, so they've had lots of practice. When Gephardt showed up, 40 minutes late, the students grilled him on contra aid, the trade treaty with Canada, and his policy on hostages. After answering a question about his stand on equal rights for homosexuals, someone demanded ``specifics!''

``Good question,'' said Gephardt, looking startled.

Though the Iowa caucuses have been a big deal since 1976, this year's feels different, residents say. There are more candidates coming through, more radio commercials urging people to participate, and more interest. ``A lot of people say they're going [to the Feb. 8 caucuses] for the first time - both Democrat and Republican,'' says Jim Eichhorn, who raises hogs. Will he be going? ``I guess so,'' he said with a sly grin. ``It's in my living room.''

But Iowa's complicated caucuses do end up driving off participants.

Laura Blankenfeld, co-owner of Bruce and Laura's Fine Dining restaurant, didn't think the farmers who ate there would get involved. Too busy. ``People are pretty low key around here,'' she says. ``It takes a lot to get them excited. But I'd like to put a tape recorder under that table there. That's where they sit and argue.''

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