Iowa: It may just be indescribable

You might think the hot topic in Iowa these days would be the price of corn or Al Gore's prospects for 2000.

Well, maybe in some circles. But the real buzz in the heart of the heartland is about something much more important (and a little more fun): the search for the perfect state slogan.

It all started when rookie Gov. Tom Vilsack pooh-poohed the phrase that's popularly thought of as the state slogan: "Iowa, you make me smile." He asked for more-peppy alternatives to help promote the state - and boost citizens' pride.

Now it seems everyone's got an opinion.

There are warm-and-fuzzy ones: "Iowa: jewel of the heartland." Or "The heart of home." Or "God's big acre."

There are not-so-fuzzy ones: "Iowa: The flyover state." Or "Welcome to Iowa, don't fall asleep."

And the, well, unusual ones: "Birthplace of Tom Arnold." Or "The pride of the universe."

Even outsiders have ideas. A Colorado man suggested: "Iowa: It's not as flat as you think."

"We've gotten more mail on this than any other issue," says the governor's slogan spokeswoman, Aida Amoura.

The trouble is narrowing it down to one. After all, this slogan stuff is serious business - and isn't without hazards. Utah tried to come up with a new slogan a few years ago. Officials deadlocked. Citizens were split. So the compromise was simply, "Utah!" (Note the exclamation point.)

There's so much going on in Utah, officials try to explain, that it's hard to pick just one thing. "We're blessed by diversity and cursed by how to market it," says Spencer Kinard, a spokesman for the state tourism agency.

Indeed, many people may think of Iowa as a kind of Field of Dreams.

(Some residents have suggested using a slogan from the movie of the same name: "Is this Heaven - No, it's Iowa.")

But there's much more to the state than just cornfields.

There are the hog farms, for instance. Many residents complain that they stink. Hence, this suggested replacement for the smile slogan: "Iowa: You make me hold my nose."

Or there's the one that combines hog farms with that other booming state industry - riverboat gambling: "Oink if you like to gamble."

There's also one that builds on Iowa's more-cerebral image as a strong education state: "Iowa: A state of minds."

Governor Vilsack originally hoped to narrow the suggestions to a handful and put them on a statewide ballot. But the legislature balked at such a frivolous idea. So now - in the tradition of beauty pageants and state-fair contests - he's concocted a multistage process to ensure the best slogan triumphs.

First, high-schoolers across the state are being invited to write 300-word essays on the forward-looking topic: "What are my expectations for the state of Iowa in the year 2010?"

Essays - which are due April 16 - will be judged on their "thoughtfulness, foresight, and clarity."

Forty-five essay-contest winners will become judges for the slogan. On May 8, in the capital, Des Moines, they'll take the thousands of slogan suggestions that have poured into the governor's office and The Des Moines Register and winnow them to four.

These finalists will be printed in newspapers all over the state - along with ballots. Residents will send in their top choices, and Vilsack will announce the winner at the State Fair in August.

So the stage is set - and the pressure's on.

AFTER all, there are rewards for picking a great slogan. Perhaps the best-known is "Virginia is for lovers," which has been drawing tourists for 30 years.

When one state official tried replacing it with "Virginia: exciting times every time," hotels, restaurants, and other businesses just ignored it. And the state's General Assembly was so miffed that it passed a law that bars any slogan other than the much-loved "lovers" phrase.

And Iowa better choose carefully. In another Utah travail, when it began using "The Greatest Snow on Earth" to promote its skiing, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus took it to court, alleging trademark infringement. After a three-year legal battle, Utah finally won the right to use the jingle just last month.

So what's Iowa's new slogan going to be?

One fifth-grader suggested, "Iowa - Mooove on in." Another child proposed a takeoff on the famous milk ads: "Got corn?"

Others would play off regional rivalries: "Iowa: At least it's not Nebraska." Or, more wryly, "Iowa: Kansas without the glitz."

And many have suggested "Land between two rivers." (For non-Midwesterners, Iowa sits between the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers).

One Des Moines Register columnist was particularly taken with this suggestion: "Mesopotamia" - referring to the ancient land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers that's considered the cradle of civilization.

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