Iowa governor's race: sagging economy a key issue

Stalks of yellow-brown corn, high as an ''elephant's eye,'' are almost everywhere you look.

The fall crop in the nation's No. 1 corn-producing state is one of the best ever. But farmers could not be less heartened. Though hog prices are up, grain prices in some parts of Iowa are less than half what they were a year ago.

Those who work in Iowa's agriculture-related industries are not faring much better. Some 122,000 Iowans are officially ''unemployed.'' Many of those who have jobs are less than confident about their economic future.

About the only good news many of these farmers and workers hear these days comes from political candidates promising better times in the years to come.

''We've got to get Iowans back to work - we need to rebuild railroads, bridges, highways, cities . . . ,'' Democratic gubernatorial candidate Roxanne Conlin reassures enthusiastic crowds as she campaigns around the state. ''I have not rejected the idea of Iowa's becoming an employer of last resort.''

In Cedar Rapids, Lt. Gov. Terry Branstad, the GOP contender for the governor's job, tells students at Coe College about his plan to create 180,000 new jobs, in part, by attracting more out-of-state businesses.

Both candidates are in their 30s, graduates of Drake University Law School, and are working especially hard to court voters in the political center.

Mr. Branstad is considered much more conservative than GOP Gov. Robert Ray, who is stepping down after 14 years in office. Branstad is meeting with students , environmentalists, and other traditionally Democratic groups in an effort to snare every possible vote. In a bid to the state's 19 percent Roman Catholic population, he is also making more frequent references to his stand against federal funds for abortions.

Mrs. Conlin, a mother of four children, who founded the Iowa Women's Political Caucus 10 years ago and can give a rousing speech on the history of the women's movement that brings college students to their feet, pitches the conservative vote by emphasizing her experience as a US attorney. She favors abolition of the parole system and tougher sentences for violent criminals.

Branstad stresses his 10 years' experience as a state legislator and lieutenant governor and the fact that he and his family live on a farm. He planted oats last spring (now worth half as much a bushel as then), and says he knows firsthand about the farmer's plight. One of his campaign ads stresses that only a farmer can really understand farm problems.

''My response is that (US Secretary of Agriculture) John Block is a farmer and farmers are still losing,'' contends Mrs. Conlin. ''I make no claim to being an Iowa farm girl - I approach farm problems with no preconceived notions.''

Mrs. Conlin's campaign focuses heavily on criticizing what she perceives as GOP mismanagement of the economy and, in the process, the shattering of ''the American dream.''

''They have taken our dreams of a decent job at a decent wage and of having a home of our own and reserved those dreams for just a few,'' she tells those attending a union-sponsored unemployment rally in Rock Island, Ill. ''Our first job is to elect Democrats who share our dream for a brighter future for everyone.''

She attacks her opponent for his changable voting record and as partly responsible for a state budget now expected to run in the red by at least $75 million.

''Iowa, my friends, is broke, broke, broke,'' she tells elderly residents of a downtown Davenport high-rise. Assuring them there must be a tax increase to finance new jobs, she takes an informal poll on tax preference, as she has elsewhere during the campaign. Iowa's 3 percent sales tax again surfaces as the prime candidate for a hike. Branstad has said he would consider a tax hike only as a last resort.

The Iowa Poll, conducted by the Des Moines Register, and Mrs. Conlin's own polls show Branstad with a decided lead. Mrs. Conlin was ahead in the polls by a substantial margin last May. That was before her primary win and what some political analysts view as an admission that irreparably damaged her campaign. An articulate critic of tax shelters and of the GOP as ''the party of privilege, '' Mrs. Conlin in July disclosed that, despite substantial assets, she and her husband owed and paid no state income tax last year. Still, she says she strongly supports a more equitable tax system in which everyone would pay at least a minimum state income tax.

Whatever the self-inflicted damage to her campaign, the latest Iowa Poll suggests that her effort to blame the GOP and President Reagan for Iowan's economic woes may not work. Some 47 percent of the state's voters approve of the way the President is handling his job. Almost as many voters say they are likely , because of him, to vote Republican.

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