HALFWAY through his campaign debate this week with Sen. Tom Harkin, Republican Tom Tauke glanced over at his wife, Beverly, who smiled hopefully and gave him the thumbs-up sign. But as the critical Iowa race for the United States Senate moves into its final eight weeks, some experts are pointing their thumbs down for GOP hopes here. A victory by Congressman Tauke would cut away at the Democrats' 55-to-45 margin in the Senate, and set the stage for a GOP takeover in 1992. Vice President Dan Quayle, touring Iowa Monday and Tuesday for Tauke, calls it a ``priority race'' for the White House.
But Tauke - despite repeated efforts - hasn't yet scored effectively in his attacks against Democrat Harkin. And that surprises some observers.
``Harkin is a weak, vulnerable incumbent,'' says Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines. Iowans generally aren't fond of Senator Harkin, who has an acerbic image here, and he's fallen below 50 percent in the polls, Professor Goldford observes.
Yet Tauke, mired at a poll rating in the 30s, hasn't caught fire. ``It looks as if Harkin's vulnerability could be the vulnerability of Jell-O - Tauke can't nail it to the wall,'' Goldford says.
Hugh Winebrenner, a longtime observer of Iowa politics, says Tauke is ``in some trouble.'' He's failed to generate any enthusiasm outside his Republican core, he's been hurt by the abortion issue (Tauke is against abortion even in cases of rape and incest), and he must overcome the Democrats' 90,000-plus-voter margin in registrations in Iowa.
Right on target
Furthermore, Tauke is ``reserved and cerebral,'' not always the best qualities for political trench warfare. Harkin is ``a street fighter,'' Dr. Winebrenner says.
Tauke's camp counters that the race is right on target. But even they were stung by Harkin's tactics in this week's debate.
``This was a 10-point race on Labor Day. ... We couldn't hope for better,'' argues Tauke spokesman Allen Finch. That 10 points can be made up quickly through TV ads, Mr. Finch says.
As he did in their latest debate, Tauke will go after Harkin in three areas in the final weeks: Harkin's liberalism, his farm policies, and his ``detachment'' from Iowa.
Harkin represents ``the views and values of California, New York, and Texas,'' Finch charges. ``In his chase for endorsements from those areas, he literally runs over Iowa's interests.''
TV debate surprise
For example, Tauke says that Harkin bows to California environmentalists, who want to remove all lead from gasoline. Such a step would require the typical Iowa farmer to replace an estimated $100,000 worth of equipment, Tauke says.
And Tauke argues that Harkin blew a major opportunity to help Iowa's corn farmers when he supported a bill that would give coal-based methanol precedence over corn-based ethanol as a substitute for gasoline. Harkin denies that the bill would have such an effect.
Yet the topics of the debate - public works, environment, and education - were overshadowed by Harkin's last-minute gambit. In his closing statement, the senator called on Tauke to agree, then and there, to shun all negative campaigning, and to avoid all mention of one another in TV ads.
Harkin then strode over to Tauke, stretched out his hand, and demanded an agreement on the spot.
``You and I have the power to tell our campaigns and supporters that we won't tolerate the type of negative campaigns that have been going on around the country,'' Harkin explained. ``Let's agree with a handshake that we ... won't mention each other in ads.''
Agreement and criticism
As the cameras hummed, Tauke shook Harkin's hand, and the senator declared that the deal was done.
Tauke was incensed. With the final moments of the debate ticking off, he told Harkin that positive campaigns were a fine idea, but:
``I just wish [the sentiments] were reflected in the actions of your campaign. Frankly, I think it's a little hypocritical for you to stand here tonight and talk about positive campaigns when you just got finished sending out a mailing piece to ... the women of the state that excoriated me, inaccurately, on a number of issues.''
Tauke continued: ``After putting out that piece, to stand up here sanctimoniously saying now we're all going to be good guys and run good campaigns, frankly is not what I consider to be fair play. ... I'd ask you to sweep in front of your own door.''
The next day, newspapers reported little else but the clash over negative campaigning. Other topics were virtually ignored, including Tauke's jibes at Harkin's record.
But Winebrenner cautions: ``It's not over yet.'' In the past, there have been ``huge swings'' among Iowa voters near election day. That just might happen again, he says.