Steady as the people who live here, the Midwest could give backbone and continuity to the nation's choice of a president in 1980. Early on, with Iowa and Illinois, and then later, with Michigan and Ohio, the Midwest weighs heavily in the party nomination outcome. Two of the most pivotal states for the November general election -- Ohio and Illinois -- lie in the heartland.

But the political mood in the Midwest is tentative and wary. The public is bidding its time, watching events in other states, in no hurry to make up its collective mind about candidates.

There is no mistaking the Midwest's importance for 1980.

The nomination process that began in Iowa Jan. 21 -- moving to New England as March began and to the South this past week -- now returns to the heartland with the Illinois primary March 18.

Thereafter, in almost every week from Illinois until the Ohio primary June 3, the last day of the delegate season, the Midwest will register with a caucus or primary.

The East's nomination influence is mostly "up front" -- three-fourths of its delegates will have been chosen by the end of April. The West is marked by its closing power -- three-fourths of the delegates there will still not have been chosen by the end of April. But the Midwest's delegates -- the largest share of any region (with 28 percent of both convention's totals) -- are chosen more evenly over the five-month nomination calendar.

So far, Midwesterners seem relieved that their nomination decisions won't be over in a rush.

Midwesterners -- whether they be farmers, industrial workers, or business people -- are troubled. Inflation worries them. The nation seems adrift as a world power, lacking a moral or conceptual mooring for influencing events, they say. And while Midwesterners generally hold no single leader or institution responsible, including President Carter and Congress, neither does any candidate inspire a majority of them to great hope.

First George Bush, as a result of his caucus showing in Iowa, and now John Anderson, among the Republicans, have stirred those anxious for a fresh face. But already, here in the Midwest, the familiar presence of Michigander Gerald Ford appears likely to crowd the other, new Republican moderates and make the 1980 race into a rerun of Mr. Ford's 1976 struggle with conservative Ronald Reagan.

The economy cuts hardest among 1980 issues.

"If I weren't a Christian man, I'd despair," says Bill Fordham, a farmer from a town with the unlikely name of Ohio, Ill., who takes scientific soil heat and moisture readings for the government in his spare time. "The cost of money now is over 16 percent. A year ago it was 10. We're going to be borrowing $250,000 for operating expenses this spring. Higher rates will take $15,000 out of my profits this year."

My circle of acquaintances is such [that] we don't talk politics much," Mr. Fordham says. "Personally i'm kind of excited about John Anderson's chances." The liberal Republican congressman, who finished a strong second to George Bush in the Massachusetts primary, is from a neighboring north-central Illinois district.

Mr. Fordham, who farms 1,700 acres of corn and soybeans, isn't angry with President Carter over the grain embargo. "The grain embargo, as such hasn't really hurt cash market prices of today," Mr. Fordham says. "i'm not opposed to an embargo. But the boycott burden shouldn't be put on one part of the economy."

In Michigan, too, economic trends test the Midwesterner's usually determined optimism.

"It's bleak now," says Michael Cherry, service manager for a Detroit marine-engine manufacturer. "Dealers . . . can't afford to keep an inventory of boats to show people. At 18 percent, you have to sell a boat after you get it. And fuel is so high. It costs a boat owner $150 a weekend for fuel. Another 50 -cent hike in the price of gasoline could be the end of the V-8 marine engine."

"We're in a non-hero situation," says Toledo, Ohio, food broker Bruce Penner. "The nomination questions is, who's going to hurt us the least, not help us the most."

"I don't think the country is in all that bad shape, compared with50 years ago, or 20 years ago," Mr. Penner says. "But there are so many problems that just sit there, so many unwinnable battles -- like the hostages. There's nothing anyone can do about energy costs.

"I have mixed feelings about all the candidates. There's not a clear leader in the bunch. Carter's letting the Shah in was a calculated risk, and he lost. His lethargic handling of the thing is perceived as a success.

"Anderson's far too liberal for my taste. Reagan goes too far the other way. And who's Bush? What has he ever done? Nobody in Toledo knows anything about George Bush.

"I'm going to sit on the fence until the last couple of weeks."

In Grand Rapids, Mich., which sent Jerry Ford first to Congress and then to the White House, Robert Durham says he's "a Bush man" but his first choices -- former US Secetary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and former Secretary of the Treasury William Simon -- aren't running.

"It's hard to pin Bush down," Mr. Durham concedes. "i'd like to hear more about his economic policies. He comes through clean, though -- and clean looks good."

"We think of Jerry with fondness," Mr. Durham says of the former president. "But he'd get shot down if he became a serious candidate. The newspapers would bring up his banging his head, the pardon of Nixon."

"Reagan, philosophically, has a great deal of appeal,"

Mr. Durham continues. "But he's an ideologue, not a pragmatist. He's a media event.

"Carter is milking the Iranian situation, holding 200 million people electorally hostage to himself. he's using it as a ploy, not doing anything about it.

"Kennedy . . . favors wage and price controls. But they've never worked. They have appeal to a great many people, but they only create greater inflation."

In practical terms, too, Midwesterners are waiting -- for the campaign to arrive.

Pins, posters, campaign headquarters can be readied in advance. But, like a road show, not until the candidates appear after the previous nomination theatre , does a state come alive to the contest.

The motorcades, the speeches amplified on TV news have just hit Illinois as Edward Kennedy and John Anderson skipped the Southern primaries. Mr. Anderson won top billing as "star of the week" in the Chicago Sun- Times, before Mr. Reagan and Rep. Philip Crane arrived from the Southern campaign -- also to claim the homestate advantage.

On the Democratic side in the Prairie State, most of the action appeared to be going on in the dark labyrinth of corridors beneath Chicago City Hall.

Surface events showed Rosalynn Carter speaking at the Devon-Sheridan Senior Community Center here, explaining that the President was in Washington to watch the Iran and Afghanistan crises . . . or Senator Kennedy telling the City Club of Chicago at a crowded luncheon about the "myths of Carter economic politics."

But the Democratic outcome, long-time Chicago-watchers say, may really depend on the will and determination of Mayor Jane Byrne and the patronage forces she commands in City Hall and Cook County administration buildings.

Is she really the heir of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley, who could turn out an army Cook County patronage workers 40,000 strong?

Will she be a 1980 Kennedy kingmaker, the way Mr. Daley reputedly was in the tight 1960 general election for the senator's older brother John?

"Will Jane 'lay numbers on' the precinct captains?" one insider asks. That is, will she give Democratic ward and precinct leaders quotas to meet, under the implied threat of cutting jobs under their control if they fail to produce?

Mrs. Byrne already has become a controversial figure here in her own right. First a teachers' strike, then a firemen's strike have dominated daily headlines and newscasts. Her confrontations with municipal workers plus the drama of the Iranian and Afghan affairs and economic news have blocked attention to the campaign of her candidate, Ted Kennedy.

The net effect of Mrs. Byrne's help for Senator Kennedy and the clout of the Cook County Democratic machine she inherited will be measured in the Illinois primary, as well as in the delegate outcome.

Most polls show Mr. Carter and Mr. Reagan the favorites in Illinois -- but with many voters ready to switch in the closing days. The Illinois system, a delegate-slate ballot by congressional district, may confuse outsiders. In the crucial delegate-slate listings, the senator and President Carter are rated about even.

After Illinois it's on to Wisconsin and Kansas April 1.

In Wisconsin, Kennedy forces concede the edge to President Carter. But John Anderson seems to be generating the most excitement overall. The Madison Capital Times endorsed Mr. Anderson for President -- the first Republican it has backed since its founding in 1917.

"In 1968 the Cap Times was the first paper in the country to endorse Eugene McCarthy," points out editor Elliot Mariniss.

"The paper has been tremendously disappointed with Jimmy Carter," he says. "Right now he's the favorite over Kennedy. We never know where Carter's going with foreign policy. We supported him on Iran. But there doesn't seem to be any consistency in his administration."

Mr. Anderson, not Senator Kennedy, appears to be the likely heir to Wisconsin voters' dissatisfaction with the President.

"Reagan will win the primary," Mr. Mariness says. "He appeals to deep-rooted Wisconsin conservatism."

But Wisconsin's large group of independents -- mostly disillusioned moderate Republicans at odds with conservative party leadership -- will likely go for Representative Anderson.

"Anderson will churn things up here," Mr. Mariness says, likening the candidate's situation to the 1924 Robert M. La Follette third-party movement in Wisconsin.

In Wisconsin, as is the case nationally, political observers are waiting to see what catches on at the college campuses.

But Tony Man, a political reporter for the University of Wisconsin campus paper, the Daily Cardinal, says: "There's surprisingly little interest among students in the presidential race so far. Brown, Anderson, and Kennedy people all say they have great support among the students. There just isn't the interest there was in 1972 or 1968. We've had mostly surrogates, not the candidates, appearing here. Students aren't well-organized yet into mass committees going out to work for the candidates.

"If anything has caused a stir, it's the draft. There have been demonstrations. But the crowds have measured in the hundreds, not in the thousands.

"The students mostly continue grinding away. Getting out and getting the job is the overriding concern."

In Kansas, which holds its primary the same day as Wisconsin, President Carter looks like the hands-down winner, although Senator Kennedy has strong union support among workers in the state's aircraft industry.

Kansans are not altogether angry about Mr. Carter's farm policies either. The price of wheat has held up. For a time farmers were worried that the winter wheat crop might have been hurt by the weather, but now prospects look good for another bumper harvest.

Some Kansas Republicans think native son Robert Dole has stayed in the race too long -- keeping them from lining up behind the party's likely survivors. Most of the other Republican activity has sided with Ronald Reagan and George Bush -- although after his Massachusetts showing John Anderson has made "more headway among rock-ribbed Republicans," Kansas political observers say.

With Mr. Ford also a possible factor, the Republican race seems as up in the air as a Kansas windstorm.

Nor is the Republican outlook any clearer in neighboring Nebraska, which holds its primary May 13. But Nebraskans are not stirred up yet about the race. Again, Mr. Reagan and Mr. Bush have the organizational lead, with Anderson student forces gathering at the colleges, like the main University of Nebraska campus at Lincoln. "It's still quiet," one political observer there says, with two months to go before the balloting.

Ohio will cash in one-fourth of the 20 percent of convention delegates who will be chosen in the nine primaries scheduled for June 3.

At the moment, Ohioans' views fairly reflect national trends. Most readings show Senator Kennedy trailing President Carter statewide by the same margin as he trailes nationally -- with the senator stronger in the state's industrial north while Mr. Carter is ahead in the South.

But economic issues are beginning to hit home in Ohio, too. Miners and steelworkers are impatient to get federal approval for the use of high-sulfur coal in power plants. Steel imports are another concern, with the big mills in Youngstown already closed.

President Carter's ban on campaigning until the American hostages are released in Iran could hurt him in Ohio.

Mr. Carter narrowly took Ohio 1976 against Gerald Ford, but he has made only two trips to the state since -- neither of them to Cleveland. President Ford used to visit Ohio every six to eight months, looking to his political future.

Mr. Ford has held Ohio backing since leaving office, without actively being in the race. A poll of 300 Republican precinct committeement earlier this month showed he and Ronald Reagan tied for support, a 29 percent each, with George Bush at 25 percent.

Ford strength rests most securely among Midwestern moderate republican governors.

Ohio's James Rhodes was quietly for John Connally, but his support diminished as the Connally star dimmed. Governor Rhodes would like to go with Mr. Ford. But Ohioans see a rough primary battle again if Mr. Ford takes on Mr. Reagan. The former California governor trailed by only eight points in statewide polls in 1976 after campaigning just two days there, although Mr. Ford ended up winning 91 of 97 Ohio delegates.

Closely observed, the Midwest is not a monolithic region.

To an Iowan, Ohio isn't even in the Midwest, but in the East. And the lower reaches of Ohio, Indiana, and illinois -- which were settled up the Ohio River from Kentucky and Tennessee -- are more Southern than Midwestern in their voting patterns. Then, too, the heavily "ethnic" cities of the upper Midwest, from Cleveland to Milwaukee, and the large black blocs in Detroit and St. Louis add other contending factors to the equation.

More than two-thirds of the Midwestern campaign will remain after Illinoisans vote next Tuesday. And the Midwesterners intend to take all the time necessary to make their 1980 decision.

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