Bush's testing time begins in 'corn country'

Iowans get their first look tomorrow at the GOP's top presidential

Is this heaven?

No, it's Iowa.

When George W. Bush arrives in this Midwestern state tomorrow, he may find this plaintive exchange from the "Field of Dreams" more fact than cinematic fiction.

While the rest of the country has been bowing before the Texas governor as if he were a political Solomon, down-to-earth Iowans aren't ready to anoint him the GOP nominee for president. Not yet.

Here in the land of bedrock values and black loam, people apply the same rule to a front-runner as to a promising crop of corn: It's no good 'til it's sitting in the silo.

To test how he'll ripen in the role of GOP front-runner, pragmatic Iowans will want to know how Bush intends to help hog farmers and keep the drug methamphetamine from destroying a generation of youths. They also say - again and again - that they want him to prove he's got one thing: character.

"It would be a shame to vote for someone just because he's got a better speaking voice than Al Gore," says a bespectacled researcher at Iowa State University. "I think

people will wait to make up their minds - and blessedly so."

Iowans bring up the character criterion in different ways: "We need someone we can respect," or "I'm looking for honesty."

Edward Eichhorn, a retired phone company manager (and a Republican who has voted for some Democrats) says: "I think we've lost respect in the world because of the Clinton scandal." Standing near his barn-red garage perched in rolling green fields near the town of Malcom, he adds, "We need someone who will give us leadership - real moral leadership."

One thing going for Bush here is his strong name recognition. Many people remember his father for having a basic integrity.

"There's the feeling that President Bush would never have asked Monica Lewinsky to be anything but an intern," says Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University in Ames.

"People forgive mistakes, but you have to admit them first," adds Leona Westphal, a convenience-store owner and the Republican chairwoman for Adams County. "It doesn't mean you have to be perfect."

Individual character may be a top-drawer issue when Iowans go to their caucuses next February and give their backing to one GOP hopeful. But their position on social issues with a morality component may not be the priority.

The Christian right, which usually makes a big deal of issues such as abortion, isn't expected to be very vocal. After losing the battle over the impeachment of President Clinton, it may hold back for the sake of winning back the presidency for Republicans. Indeed, "electability" is a buzzword often applied to Bush. If he can beat the Democrats, his abortion stance isn't crucial.

Furthermore, the conservative vote is being split by the many GOP candidates: family-values crusader Gary Bauer, commentator Pat Buchanan, publisher Steve Forbes, radio talk-show host Alan Keyes, and former Vice President Dan Quayle.

But some here - especially the other candidates - aren't holding back about Bush's schedule this weekend. He arrives Saturday for two fund-raising events with invitation-only crowds. Others who want to see him are being told to go to the airport. They've got to be quick: He's staying only one day before going to Maine, New Hampshire, and Boston.

Some are annoyed because "Bush isn't going to grovel," says Professor Schmidt. "He's not going to kiss pigs." The strategy opens him to charges of being elitist - a tag his father couldn't shake.

But right now Bush does not need to engage in the kind of "retail politics" for which Iowa is famous, says Schmidt. "That stuff is for unknowns and dark-horse candidates." Former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, for example, will speak Saturday at the World Pork Expo in Des Moines.

Behind the grousing by other candidates is a worry that, as Mr. Quayle put it recently, the GOP nomination will be "inherited," not earned. But Bush's backers point out this is his first visit. "He'll be back," says a spokesman. "Besides, we can't very well fit the governor and 150 reporters in a farmer's kitchen."

His local team has requested that he be here at least 30 days this summer. Observers will be watching for more personal contact with individual Iowans.

When Bush does return, many expect his cloud-level poll numbers to start slipping. "His poll showings are grossly inflated," says Hugh Winebrenner, a political analyst at Drake University here. "Eventually they'll come down. And how the press interprets that will be important." When GOP front-runner Bob Dole began falling in the polls in 1995, the media saw it as a sign of a flagging campaign. But it may have been a natural adjustment, he says.

As for Bush, the word from people here is that if he proves he's a strong moral leader, he'll do just fine. "I'm interested in things like taxes and military readiness," says Dan Keith, an investment rep making sales calls in Iowa City. "But the most important thing is having a good character."

Iowa factoids

*Iowa has the highest literacy rate in the US. Its students have led the US in SAT scores the past 20 years.

*Rated the best place to raise a child by the Children's Rights Council.

*The shortest and steepest railroad in the nation is in Dubuque.

*In the past 55 years, the state has lost more than half its farms.

Source: Iowa Secretary of State's Office

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