Iowa: so politicked, so misunderstood

The first state to vote is becoming more like the US.

Bette Kersey is a senior citizen whose busy schedule swirls almost as much as her carefully coifed chestnut hair. She still owns a farm. She edits a newsletter for her retirement home. And she is passionate about issues - especially Medicare and morals.

She is also someone any would-be president should probably get to know. For Mrs. Kersey represents one of the changing faces of Iowa. As a septuagenarian, she epitomizes the "graying" of a state that already has one of the oldest populations in the nation.

This and other subtle shifts here in the heartland, cloaked at the moment in winter goose down, will undoubtedly help shape who Iowans anoint as their preferred candidates in the official start of campaign 2000 on Jan. 24.

Indeed, from changes in the farm economy to the waning influence of the Christian Right, Iowa this year reflects influences both ascendant in the national electorate and unique to this prairie expanse of hog farms and traditional values.

"The caucuses become more relevant as the population in Iowa reflects the national population," says Steffen Schmidt, a political scientist at Iowa State University in Ames.

Any self-respecting survey of Iowa should probably begin at the City Limits restaurant in Grinnell, Iowa. Here, at a Formica table, Kersey nibbles on the special of the day - ham loaf doused in a pinkish sauce - and chats with four friends. As senior citizens, they represent an ever-more-important voting group in Iowa and nationwide.

Iowa now has a larger percentage of residents 85 or older than any other state. It ranks fifth for people 65 and older (behind Florida, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and West Virginia).

Seniors are typically more involved in politics than are younger voters. Nationally, they're three times as likely to vote as 18- to 24-year-olds. And because people are living longer, the age at which older voters stop being active is rising. Involvement used to plummet at 65. Now it's 75.

All this is why listening to people like Kersey is key. She first voted in 1950 for Dwight Eisenhower. Over the years, between running a farm and doing research papers, she has worked for several Republicans in Iowa, including Ronald Reagan. This year, she's most interested in the self-described GOP outsider, Arizona Sen. John McCain.

"He's lived a real life," she says, referring to his war-hero history. "He's brave enough to stand up and talk about campaign-finance reform, which isn't popular among Republicans. There's just something that rings true about him."

Senator McCain hasn't campaigned in Iowa this year - and isn't doing well in the polls - but analysts say he resonates well here anyway, at least with the World War II generation. "He's seen as the guy who has their values," says Mr. Schmidt.

Texas Gov. George W. Bush does well with older residents too, which is one reason for his wide lead in the state. A recent Des Moines Register survey showed him garnering 54 percent of the GOP poll participants 65 or older.

On the Democratic side, former Sen. Bill Bradley has also grabbed some interest among those who remember things like Mr. Reagan always wearing a suit coat in the Oval Office - out of respect for it. After President Clinton's moral lapses, there's a yearning here for more dignity.

But the passion doesn't end there. Seniors are quick to bring up Medicare reform. "I think we have a war to fight here," Kersey says in an almost combative tone. She wants better preventive care - and a prescription-drug benefit. She tells of one nursing-home friend who paid $400 for a small vial of medicine that, she says, "didn't last very long and didn't do the job."

For many, it's an issue of self-sufficiency. As one in Kersey's lunch group puts it: "We remember how, doggone it, grandpa had to live with us no matter what. Social Security and Medicare have given us all independence - and that's critical."

A new ethic on the farm

Don Adams represents another change in Iowa, this one more subtle. Mr. Adams, a white-bearded farmer who raises sheep and black Angus cows, has worked around the world - in Africa, Asia, and beyond. But now he's settled near Madrid - in Iowa - to raise cattle and sheep in a natural, ecologically sensitive manner at the farm his dad has run since the 1930s.

His story is unusual for an Iowa farmer, but the tenacity and ingenuity he uses to survive are common these days. To make it in today's economy - with its wire-thin margins - farmers must be creative.

For many, it means taking other jobs and becoming "sundowners" who till the soil after dark. Some share their equipment or hire crop consultants to trim expenses. Others, like Adams, put "value added" in their products. His cattle are raised without hormones. He charges a premium to those who want naturally raised beef.

Ironically, farming the natural way means he uses techniques out of the 1950s. Standing atop a 30-foot-tall pile of silage in his silo, Adams pitchforks the sweet-smelling food down to the cows. "Any conventional farmers would look at this and say I'm nuts," he says.

Indeed, most farmers have automated and use expensive equipment to empty silos. But by shoveling himself, Adams keeps cost down. He also keeps expenses low by using the cows' manure to fertilize his fields, instead of the usual chemicals.

Just as farmers have had to adapt, most here say the government has to change its farm policy. As always, it's a major topic on the campaign trail. The 1996 "Freedom to Farm" law is unpopular with small farmers. It injected more free-market flexibility into an industry heavily subsidized by the government.

Campaigning politicians regularly demonize it and champion things like "counter-cyclical payments" to small farmers - hoping to garner their vote. They also criticize heavily automated agribusiness, which doesn't have many people working in it - and thus doesn't have the clout in the caucus rooms.

But the thing that makes the most sense to Adams is Bradley's plan to reform campaign finance. After seeing the former New Jersey senator at a nearby campaign event, he became a supporter.

Bradley, in fact, garners some of his broadest support in Iowa among small farmers, many of whom are upset over Clinton administration agricultural policies - and thus, by extension, Al Gore.

"I can't afford to sway a congressman," he says - not like agribusiness giants can. So bringing equity into the political process "makes clear sense to me."

View from the pews

Like many conservative Christians, Pastor Dick Hardy is jumping between faith and politics. For him and others, the two aren't as connected as they once were.

He's the most overtly political of the pastors at the First Assembly of God church in Des Moines. On a recent Wednesday, he chatted easily with members of his flock, shuttling between a teen baptizing ceremony and a Pentecostal prayer meeting, where members spoke in tongues. This tall, gregarious man was one of Pat Robertson's generals in the 1988 Iowa campaign - one of the Christian Right's most powerful moments.

But these days, with many in the movement questioning whether their aims can be achieved in politics, there's a new mantra of practicality. "I'm not electing a pastor of the United States," Mr. Hardy says. "I'm electing the president."

And this year, for him, that means supporting Mr. Bush. Until recently, Hardy had dropped out of national politicking. He was on the school board, saying he could get more done at the local level.

With him and others, there's less enthusiasm for politics - and no single anointed candidate. The Christian Right's forces are spread out among Governor Bush, Gary Bauer, publisher Steve Forbes, and former ambassador Alan Keyes. Analysts say they've lost their power by scattering so broadly. The diffusion is working to the advantage of Bush - who maintains as much as a 26-point margin in the state.

More important to Hardy, years of organizing has brought politicians closer to a higher power. "Twelve years ago, would you have heard so many candidates talk about being born again?" he asks. In one GOP debate in Iowa, five of the six candidates mentioned God or Jesus 20 times.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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