The Linn County, Iowa, barbecue was not the sort of place one would expect the Rev. Jesse Jackson to do well. The crowd was mostly white and rural, a far cry from his urban black constituency. To make matters worse, when Mr. Jackson finally began to speak, the clouds opened up and rain began spattering down. But as the words began to flow the restless crowd began to pay attention.
``Let this rain wash away our fears,'' Jackson told the crowd of Iowa Democrats. From that moment on the audience was caught up in Jackson's emotional and compelling rhetoric. Despite the rain, nobody moved.
The positive response Jackson has received in Iowa has surprised many political observers who assumed his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination would not reach far beyond its primarily black political base. ``Let's see how he does in Iowa,'' they said.
Judging by the size of the crowds he draws across the state, and the standing ovations he receives from white farmers, the critics had better look again.
The key question hovering over the Jackson campaign, however, is: Will the enthusiastic response translate into caucus votes on Feb. 8?
``He certainly is attracting a lot of attention, a lot of large crowds,'' says the Iowa campaign director of another Democratic candidate. ``I don't think there is any question that his favorability in Iowa is higher than it might be in other agricultural states. Iowa Democratic caucus attenders are more liberal, more populist, than national Democrats as a whole,'' he said.
The Rev. Norm White is the rural-life director for the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Dubuque, Iowa. He had come to the city square in Dubuque to hear Jackson. ``His concept of what is grinding little people down is what I am convinced of myself,'' Fr. White said. ``His constant talk about little people who are not getting a fair shake is what I am not hearing from the other candidates.''
``His message of economic justice,'' said the rival campaign director, ``is one that has some power in a state that has suffered so much over the years.'' He felt that Jackson's campaign is ``more than just a symbol'' and that he ``could still catch fire.'' Jackson ``is a bonafide candidate in this state, and one to be taken seriously.''
Jackson's poll numbers have weakened during the summer, however, as other candidates have gotten into the race. After Gary Hart dropped out of the race in early May, a Des Moines Register poll showed Jackson leading the Democratic field, favored by 11-12 percent of Iowa voters. But according to polls taken in the state this summer by other campaigns, he now trails Rep. Richard Gephardt, Sen. Joseph Biden, Gov. Michael Dukakis, and Sen. Paul Simon. One rival candidate's poll recently showed Jackson with just 5-7 percent.
Still, the enthusiasm Jackson generates at appearances is palpable. ``I'm very impressed with Reverend Jackson,'' said Mary Lee Hostert, who had just heard him speak at a corn boil in northeastern Iowa. ``He appeals to the people that are desperately worried about their farm situation, about the poor, about the peace issues. ... Those are people he has really brought into his camp. He is being well-received in this area.''
Earlier that day Jackson spoke at a rural Methodist church in the all-white farming community of Springville, Iowa. When he arrived, Jackson was met with a standing-room-only crowd in both the Methodist church and the Presbyterian church next door. A local cable company ran a wire between the churches, and the Presbyterians changed the hour of their Sunday service to carry Jackson's sermon.
As the parishioners sat in rapt attention, Jackson wove his political message into ecumenical fabric. ``In a real sense,'' Jackson said, ``our politics and our political ethics must match the moral imperatives put forth by the prophets and Jesus.''
``Farmers and workers, that is the message of Jesus today,'' Jackson said. ``When your back is against the wall, and when you develop some of society's leprosy of unemployment, leprosy of inadequate medical care, ... leprosy of your job being taken to a foreign markets, leprosy of rejection when your farm has been foreclosed on ... there still is a Jesus who is willing to walk past the rich, the mighty, the powerful, and the privileged and stay with you ... in the midst of rejection.''
``He's got my vote,'' said one parishioner as he left the church.
``I really loved him,'' said another. ``He is the best candidate that I've heard. I agree 100 percent with [him] on the job situation and on the farm situation.''
Sharon Neilson, a receptionist in a local doctor's office, came with her 20-year-old daughter. Both are Republicans. ``I was impressed with him,'' Mrs. Neilson said. Both said they were sufficiently impressed to vote for Jackson ``because ... he is interested in everyone. ... He is interested in this nation, not just the black people.''
But Jackson's charisma didn't win him votes from all his listeners. ``You can't not like him,'' said John Hedgecoth, a student. ``His ideas are of the future, ... but you wouldn't vote for him,'' he says. This is an all-too-common sentiment dogging the Jackson campaign.
``The key question,'' says a Democratic analyst in Iowa, ``is whether or not he can translate that [emotional appeal] - in a year in which the Democrats in Iowa and across the country very much want to win, and to nominate somebody that is electable - into actual votes.''