To the voters of Palo Alto County, Ronald Reagan is looking good -- or at least better than Jimmy Carter. This is of more than passing interest because voters here have cast their ballots for the winning candidate in every presidential election since 1896. Accordingly, the county's bellwether reputation is again on the line. Interest in the election is high. Almost everyone these days, it seems, has a political opinion.
The root of the apparent preference for Mr. Reagan -- which is nonetheless viewed as still soft enough to change -- lies largely in farmer discontent with President carter's agricultural an economic policies and in what voters see as his lack of leadership.
Many Iowa farmers are still seething over Mr. Carter's decision last January to embargo the sale of substantial amounts of grain to the Soviet Union. Their anger is more with the fact that his promise -- first made on Iowa soil in 1976 -- never to embargo food exports was broken than with the economic effects of that action.
Indeed, prices for recently harvested corn and beef in this part of northwestern Iowa are better than they have been in years. But few farmers will say Carter or his export policies have had anything to do with the upturn. They point to high yields and the fact that this part that parched much of the Iower Midwest and Southwest, ruining crops.
"Carter's farm policies are seen as more pro-consumer than pro-farmer," observes John Schad, owner of radio station KEMB here in Emmetsburg. "And though everybody's pulling in lots of dough, they're not about to give the President credit for the hike in crop prices."
Another reason why Palo Alto County may go Republican is the lack of enthusiasm among rank-and-file Democrats for the tedious job of phoning independent voters and those who need prodding to go to the polls.
"That kind of work has always been one of the Democratic Party's strengths, and it does pay off," notes Emmetsburg attorney and former Democratic county chairman Boyd Griffith. He notes that Republicans, who recently opened a store-front office on Main Street, are, by contrast, busy phoning long lists of potential supporters.
"Probably our interest in the campaign peaked before the primary when Carter telephoned several people here and [Vice-President Walter] Mondale paid a visit, " Mr. Griffith adds.
Although few Reagan-Bush or Carter-Mondale bumper stickers or campaign posters are in evidence here, there is no dearth of political polls. Most are informal and, at best, interesting rather than statistically significant.
Still, straw polls -- of students at Emmetsburg High School and of county voters by the weekly Emmetsburg Democrat -- and a post-card poll of voters in Silver Lake Township (which has one of the county's purest records for choosing the winning presidential candidate) by KEMP Radio all show a strong preference for Reagan.
What few votes John Anderson gets in these polls often are labeled protests by persons who say they are afraid of Reagan and disappointed in Carter.
But one ongoing poll is running against the tide and serves as a reminder that the race for votes is likely to be close. Patrons casting their "ballots" in a red-and-white striped booth set up in Dutch's Diner, are showing a slight preference for Carter. But, concedes Mike Flannegan, editor of the Palo Alto Gazette, which organized this poll and logs the results: "It's surprised me that Carter has been ahead -- and it's a very narrow lead."
Despite one clearly partisan political statement -- a junked jalopy in a county cornfield with the label "Reagan Farm Policy" on it -- most farmers here say they don't see much difference between the basic farm policies of either major candidate. In fact, some aren't sure that either man really has one.
When asked what the Reagan farm policy is, grain farmer Arnold Heldt pauses in the act of attaching a Reagan poster to the wall of a Mallard grain elevator and laughs, "That's sort of a secret."
Mr. Heldt is also a GOP committeeman in his township. His faith in Reagan, he says, is based on the candidate's reputation for delegating authority and selecting good advisers.
another grain farmer, Marshall Compton of Curlew, considers himself a Republican and leans toward Reagan. But he is "put out" that the GOP nominee will not say whom he intends to name as his secretary of agriculture, if elected.
Although Carter and his farm policy come in for strong criticism, the President does have his supporters in the county. Most consider him "safer" than Reagan and stress his keeping the nation out of war.
"I just don't think that Reagan is competent enough to do the job," explains Tom Kenney, a cattle buyer from Ruthvin who voted for Gerald Ford in the last election but says he will switch to Carter this time.
"I think Carter is one of the brightest men we've ever had in the White House ," insists Liz Chapman, who operates a seed and feed business with her husband. She credits Carter for his accomplishments in the Middle East, for the Panama Canal treties, for his efforts to stop the nuclear arms race, and for his "vision" in solving problems at home.
"He just had a hard time leading and accomplishing what he wanted to do," says Mrs. Chapman. She admits that for those very reasons she was ready and eager to vote Republican this year -- until the party picked Reagan as its candidate. "I don't consider myself a liberal, but by this campaign's standards I am," she continues. "I don't think we've ever had a more clear-cut choice."
At least a few previously undecided voters say they have swung over to Carter as a result of this week's presidential debate.
"I didn't believe I could be so impressed with Carter, but his experience really showed through, and there's no longer any doubt in my mind that I'll vote for him," says Lorie McNally, who, with her husband, runs a bakery in Emmetsburg.
Indeed, Carter could still draw enough support from undecided voters to manage a Palo Alto win. A Chicago Tribune poll here in early October showed as many as 30 percent of the voters were undecided.
With this in mind, county Democratic chairman John Brown concedes that the race looks extremely close. Party workers, he says, will begin a last-minute get-out-the-vote effort Sunday as they open a new headquarters in the hotel in downtown Emmetsburg. Their hope is that farmer prosperity could yet upset the old adage that farmers only vote for a Democrat when prices are down.