Reagan fighting vote erosion in farm belt
Cedar Rapids, Iowa — Touching down on the Iowa hustings means a great deal to Ronald Reagan. This is where he started his working career back in the 1930s, when he became a sportscaster for radio station WHO in Des Moines. Announcing football games and re-creating Chicago Cubs baseball games, he discovered his gift for communication.
In 1980 Iowans gave ''Dutch'' Reagan 53 percent of their presidental vote. This week, the President is back again, and not just to entertain Iowans. He wants their support - and the support of voters in Kansas, Illinois, Missouri, and other states across the politically important Midwest farm belt, which is still awaiting economic recovery. During a brief campaign swing into Iowa Thursday, Mr. Reagan acknowledged that economic progress is ''incomplete,'' but blamed policies of the past for farmers' woes.
For the first time since he went on the hustings after Labor Day, the Reagan campaign was shadowed by a foreign policy event - the bombing of the US Embassy in Beirut. Although the President did not let the event interrupt his campaign schedule, which began in Iowa in the morning and ended late in the afternoon in Michigan, he touched on the matter repeatedly, expressing his outrage at ''this cowardly act'' and vowing the United States' mission in Lebanon would continue.
Returning to his prepared remarks, he told farmers at the Brockschink farm in the little town of Norway: ''Our road is hard, because the difficulties that built up were so great. But ... we're moving forward again.''
Without mentioning Walter Mondale or the Democrats by name, Reagan attacked ''them'' for proposing a ''massive protectionist program'' that would hurt farm exports and a ''massive tax increase'' that would hit families dependent on farm income. And he asserted that his own economic and farm policies - reducing inflation, lifting the grain embargo, increasing the estate tax exemption, and a new program to ease farmers' debt burden - would make farmers ''stronger for the future.''
As the President courted hard-pressed farmers, his campaign officials acknowledged that there has been slippage in support for the President in the farm states. He still leads Walter Mondale in every farm-belt state, but the margin has declined.
''It's not a serious erosion, and we're not far off the 1980 levels, but you are always concerned when there is slippage in a base constituency,'' says James Lake, spokesman for the Reagan-Bush reelection committee. ''This constituency is very important to Reagan and the Republicans.''
Mr. Mondale, too, feels the softness, and he has also campaigned in Iowa, attacking the President's agricultural policies and the huge budget deficits that have pushed up interest rates and weakened exports, including farm sales. Democratic pollster Peter Hart concedes that Reagan remains ahead in the polls but says the President has ''greater problems in the farm belt than among almost any other group of Americans.''
''He is vulnerable among farmers,'' says Ann Lewis, political director of the Democratic National Committee. ''So the farm belt is 'opportunity territory' for us.''
One question now is how Midwest farmers, who have been hurt badly by falling land values, huge interest payments, and declining export income, will react to the President's recent moves to ease their plight and attract their votes.
Farm leaders applaud the moves but say they are only limited steps and that much more needs to be done, above all bringing down the huge budget deficit, which helps keep interest rates high and the dollar strong.
''We're not attacking the real issue,'' says John Stevenson, president of the National Corn Growers Association. ''All these programs are just band-aid efforts. ... We're outpriced abroad by about 30 percent because of the dollar. If it were not for the massive Soviet purchases, things would be even worse.''
Farmers say they are still reeling from the impact of the grain embargo imposed on the Soviet Union by President Carter after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. President Reagan lifted this embargo and now the Russians are back heavily in the American market, purchasing 23 million metric tons since last October.
In another recent move calculated to please farmers Reagan has told the Russians they can again buy more than the 12 million tons allowed under the US-Soviet grain agreement and set the ceiling at 22 million metric tons for the coming fiscal year. He also decided to hold the line against steel industry demands for import quotas. ''That gave us a good breath of air,'' says Mr. Stevenson.
GOP strategists are counting on such reactions to help put Reagan over the top in the farm belt Nov. 6. And, not incidentally, to help out the race of Sen. Roger W. Jepsen.
GOP campaign strategists are counting on such reactions to help put Reagan over the top in November.