As the November election approaches, Palo Alto County's political reputation is firmly on the line. If the many farmers here who say they will vote for Ronald Reagan follow through in the privacy of the voting both -- and if tradition holds -- this may well be a Reagan year for the United States. Voters here have been on the side of the winner in every presidential election since 1896.
In this flat country where singing commercials on the radio tout fertilizers and hog-feed supplements and only grain elevators on the horizon signal the difference between a town and another farm, the farmer and how well he is faring are central to any election decision.
"If the farmer doesn't make money, nobody else around here does either," says Emmetsburg Mayor Carroll Curran.
Economically, Palo Alto farmers are faring a little better and are less outspokenly angry with President Carter and his farm policies than they were two or three months ago. Prices for beans and corn, both about to be harvested, are up significantly. Local businessmen -- from restaurant owners to farm implement dealers -- say sales are starting to pick up again after a long lull.
The relative contentment that now prevails in northern Iowa -- and many here worry that it may be only temporary -- appears to have won back for the few of the farm votes he picked up here in 1976, when the county supported him even as the majority of Iowans were giving the state's vote to GOP nominee Gerald Ford.
But many Palo Alto farmers say they cannot forget the effects of this year's grain embargo of the Soviet Union, the sharp plunge in prices on all major crops and livestock products, and the jump in interest rates on money borrowed for spring planting. Most link the current improvement in crop prices directly with tighter supplies caused by the extensive drought in other agricultural regions of the country. They give President Carter none of the credit. As one farmer says, "It was the market and the weather that brought the change -- not politics."
So, many farmers who supported Carter in the last election here say they will shift their votes this time to Mr. Reagan.
"I think the county will go for Reagan, but it's more for Carter's minuses than for Reagan's pluses," observers MAx Rouse, a grain farmer from Curlew.
Indeed, many farmers who say they will vote for Reagan admit they do not know what kind of a farm policy he supports. It is his call for an end to the grain embargo and his sharp criticism of carter's farm policy that has their attention.
Many farmers say the crucial issue turning their votes was Carter's reneging on his pledge -- made during a campaign stop four years ago at the Iowa State Fair -- never to embargo food. While their initial reaction to the embargo was patriotic, they now feel they were singled out to bear the burden while others continued to prosper.
"Most farmers will stand for anything as long as it's fair," explains Mr. Rouse. "But this was kind of like playing cards when you're in it to win and somebody else, who isn't involved, sits back and makes the rules."
It is that kind of criticism that appears to be triggering much of the new sentiment for Reagan. At the annual baked bean and pork-and-beef sandwich picnic sponsored by the Emmetsburg Chamber of Commerce, it was not difficult for a reporter to find many farmers who say they want to give Reagan a try because they have had enough of carter.
"I'm a lifelong Democrat," said one grain and dairy farmer as he dips a fork into a plateful of egg salad, "but Carter promised us so many things and he never fulfilled a one of them in the whole four years he's been in."
"Reagan says he won't embargo our products," added David Martins, a grain and livestock farmer from nearby Havelock. Mr. Martins voted for Carter last time but said he is still paying off last spring's high interest on money he had to borrow and recently sold some cattle at a net loss. "I think," he added, "we should at elast give Reagan a try."
"Prices are better, but I just don't think I can for Carter again," agreed Wayne Davis, an Emmetsburg farmer who was recently elected to the school board. "And one thing I do like about Reagan is his stand against the ERA [Equal Rights Amendment]."
Even among registered Republicans, Reagan support does not appear to be based totally on the candidate's merits.
"This county was strong for [George] Bush in the primary caucuses and was less than enthusiastic about Reagan," explains John Spies, president of the Iowa Trust & Savings Bank in Emmetsburg and county Republican chairman during the Watergate years. "But most Republicans are dutifully supporting the ticket because Reagan supports the platform. I think he'll win overall in the county, mostly because of Carter's stand on the embargo."
Many Reagan supporters here, echoing the findings of a recent Des Moines Register poll that puts him 17 points ahead of Carter statewide, say they do not see the GOP candidate as particularly adept in foreign affairs or as a peace-keeper. Rather, it is Reagan's leadership qualities that are seen as his greatest strength.
"I personally think he's a much stronger and more decisive person than Carter ," says Emmetsburg insurance man and former Republican state legislator Jim Wirtz. "Carter seems more the kind of person who says, 'Help me lead you.'"
"Reagan is basically my type of boy: I just have more faith in his ability to run the government than Carter once he's in there and going," agrees Ron Berkland, who owns a lumber business in the small town of Cylinder.
"I just think we need someone with the initiative to cut down on wasteful spending," says Reagan supporter Gordon Anderson, who owns a hardware store in West Bend.
Reagan's recent gaffes on such subjects as the two- China policy and the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan are not seen as serious drawbacks by his supporters, who are basically voting against Carter. As one acknowledged ABC-er (Anybody But Carter) put it: "They're just goofups. All of us make mistakes."
But the "bloopers" and reagan's increasingly strong campaign stands do appear to have eroded some of his support from those backing him for his own merits.
Emmetsburg dentist Michael Louscher and his wife, Chris, who supported President Ford in the last election, both planned to vote for Reagan this time until, as Dr. Louscher says, "Reagan really started campaigning." Now, as the Louschers listen to him making many of the same promises Carter once did, Carter's edge in experience has them leaning toward him. As Mrs. Louscher says, "At least with Carter, you know what you have."
Similarly, Robert Freeman, an officer of the Cylinder State Bank who has often voted Republican, says he does not think inflation is likely to ease enough for the nation to afford the kind of tax cut that Reagan proposes.
"If I had to vote today, I'd vote for John Anderson," he says. "I think Reagan is strong enough t be a good president. What I'm concerned about is that he may be too strong, too bold. I agree with him that America has to be tough and say what it stands for, but there also has to be a little diplomacy involved."
Just as many of Palo Alto's likely Reagan votes are anti-Carter, so much of the Carter support here appears to be anti-Reagan.
"I would not view Mr. Carter's win as a victory, but I would do almost anything to keep Mr. Reagan out of the White House," admits the Rev. William Cotton, a Methodist minister in Emmetsburg. "It's not so much what Reagan says as that he cn't handle the issues. I think he proves by flirting with nuclear war that he doesn't understand the 20th century. We have never built weapons systems that were not used sooner to later . . . . Some people look on the Carter-Reagan choice as kind of like trading the devil for a witch, but I think county Democrats who really think things through and don't just vote their emotions will vote for the President. He's really the only choice."
A half-dozen farmers taking a midafternoon coffee break at Dutch's Diner in Emmetsburg, where the talk often turns to politics, concede that the main reason they support Carter is to keep Reagan out.
"I thought Reagan was pretty good to start out with. But he's a bit of hothead, and the more he talks, the less I think of him," says Vincent Ankeny, who voted for Carter last time and will again.
Those who back the President on his own merits cite his experienze and what they call his "basic honesty."
"I really think he's done about as well as he could," says Loveda Barber, who , with her husband, owns a small bakery in West Bend. "People tease a lot about his being a peanut farmer, but I think we need more of the little people like that who have come from the buttom up and can understand the problems of a small business like ours. We don't need any more of the well-connected big shots."
While there is more talk about Mr. Anderson and thirdparty candidates now than there was a few months ago, not many people say they want to invest a precious vote in someone they do not think can win. Some speak admiringly of Anderson's "straight talk" and lack of a long list of campaign promises, but many others see him basically as a "spoiler" whose candidacy only helps Reagan.
Opinion here is divided on the wisdom and effects of Carter's stand on the debates. Some say they think the "Rose Garden strategy" will work in his favor, while others label it "poor sportsmanship." Few people, however, say the Carter stand will affect their votes.
Although a lively interest in politics has always marked this county, there is a noticeable lack of enthusiasm in this election for either of the two major candidates. As Cylinder postmaster Cliff Heng, A Carter supporter, puts it: "People are disgusted with Carter, but they're not real happy with Reagan either."
Many voters insist they are undecided and, in the end, may not vote for a presidential candidate at all. As one farmer says: "You listen to them all promising you everything, and it just gets to be so much political rhetoric. You wonder if you can really believe any of them."
Some cite as a sign of such apathy the fact that only a few hundred farmers a day among the thousands who have been attending the nearby Clay County Fair -- billed as the largest of its type in the world -- have been voting in a presidential choice contest sponsored by a seed company. Reagan has been running well ahead of the others, but overall interest has been low.
Active Democrat Peggy Wigen, who teaches kindergarten in Emmetsburg, says she will work for other candidates in the party, such as US Sen. John Culver, but will either leave the presidential space on her November ballot blank or else write in the name of someone other than the major candidates. She worries about how much vote damage Carter's candidacy may inflict on other Democrats.
It seems safe to predict that:
* Voters here will watch the moves of the candidates with extreme care.
"If Carter makes a move on the farmers' behalf in the weeks ahead, I think they'll look at it very closely to see if it's for real or just another political ploy," says Jane Whitmore, editor of the Emmetsburg Democrat.
* Whatever the outcome, the vote is apt to be close.
Although there are three registered Republicans for every five Democrats, almost half of the Palo Alto voters are independents and it is they who traditionally tip the scales in favor of the winning candidate. While Reagan now is given a slight edge here, by most assessments, much depends on whether or not Carter's drawbacks in farmers' eyes diminish or grow in the weeks ahead.
"I'm still optimistic that Carter may get it," says Emmetsburg attorney Boyd Griffith. "I think he's got just enough time left and enough tricks piled up [ including a possible lifting of the grain embargo] that he could still carry the county."
There is some concern that all attention the county has received because of its long record could cause a few voters to think in terms of the national mood on election day rather than vote their convictions.
"All of the attention has been very flattering, and I think we may be getting a little vain," says John Spies. "I think I'm beginning to see the start of a little reaching, and I just hope the county doesn't get wrapped up in trying to be right,"