At the Iowa State Fair, there's a contest for everything. Every August, Iowans from around the state gather here, as they have done for nearly 150 years, to show their livestock and home-grown produce this year, everything from a 142-lb. squash to a 1,100-lb. pig named Boaris. Men toss horseshoes and women cut logs, all in pursuit of blue ribbons and bragging rights.
So perhaps it's not surprising that a similar spirit of old-fashioned competition is infusing the state's politics.
In a year in which fewer than four dozen House races are expected to be competitive nationwide, a remarkable four out of five seats in Iowa are in play. On top of that, Iowa has a competitive Senate race and a highly contested governor's race, making it one of the most up-for-grabs states in this year's elections.
Of course, Iowa has long enjoyed a lively political scene, largely because of its role in the presidential nominating process, with its first-in-the-nation caucuses. Iowans enjoy debate, they will tell you, and pride themselves on maintaining an independent streak when it comes to backing a candidate.
In 1944, it was one of the few states to vote against Franklin Roosevelt; in1988, it gave the second highest percentage of votes to Michael Dukakis.
But this year's competitiveness reflects a new division within Iowa itself, which in recent years has become almost evenly split between Democrats, Republicans, and independents in some ways, mirroring the country as a whole. This is a state whose two current US senators, Tom Harkin and Charles Grassley, stand among that body's most liberal and conservative members, respectively.
Having gone for Al Gore by just 4,000 votes in the last election, Iowa has become one of the tightest battlegrounds in the nation one which President Bush, who last week made his third visit of the year to the state, would undoubtedly like to win the next time around. And with Republicans holding a slim six-seat margin in the House, and Democrats clinging to a one-seat majority in the Senate, both sides agree the outcome of contests here could prove pivotal this fall.
"Clearly, Iowa has been targeted" by the national parties, says Iowa Secretary of State Chet Culver (D), sipping a soda outside the Chop Shop at the fair, where people emerge clutching grilled pork chops like popsicles. "This could come down to Iowa, in terms of control of the US House."
A simple reason for the unusual level of competition in Iowa's House races this year is the way the state handles redistricting. Every 10 years, states must redraw their congressional districts to comply with new census data a task most leave up to the legislatures, which typically produce maps that protect incumbents or maximize one party's advantage. In Iowa, however, a nonpartisan body draws the lines without taking the partisan makeup of districts into account, and the legislature simply votes yea or nay.
As a result, four out of Iowa's five new congressional districts are fairly evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, mirroring the state's overall makeup. Only the 5th district, which runs down the state's western border, has a solid majority of Republican voters.
And rather than having their districts custom-designed to suit them, two of Iowa's incumbent House members Jim Leach (R) and Leonard Boswell (D) had to pack up and move their homes in order to run in their new districts. "It's a little bit of an inconvenience," admits Mr. Boswell, who relocated from his farm in Decatur County to Des Moines.
Yet even without its good-government approach to redistricting, the state legislature may not have been able to produce lines that clearly benefited one party over the other, since Iowa's demographics have become so evenly split.
Analysts note that the rural, agricultural parts of the state, which tend to be more conservative, are shrinking, while the more liberal urban and suburban areas are growing. Iowa now has the nation's third highest proportion of seniors, as many young people leave the state. But the fastest-growing sub group here is Hispanics a shift that's apparent at the fair, where silk-screen T-shirts for sale read: "You light up my life" but also "Te Amo."
These population shifts may have been one underlying factor in Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack's surprise victory in 1998, after 30 years of GOP gubernatorial rule.
Still, analysts say this doesn't mean Democrats are on the road to a solid majority. Although Mr. Gore won here in 2000, he arguably would have lost to Mr. Bush had Pat Buchanan not received nearly 6,000 votes. Instead, the fastest-growing electoral group in Iowa has been independents who increasingly cast the deciding votes in most races. "There's been a narrowing of the gap between Democrats and Republicans, and a growth in the percentage of people saying that they're independents," says Arthur Miller, a political scientist at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. "That gives rise to the competitive nature of the overall population."
As in much of the country, Bush is far more popular among Iowans today than when he ran in 2000. According to a recent poll conducted for the Des Moines Register, Bush would win a rematch with Gore today by 64 to 27 percent.
Yet Iowans are also already getting a good look at the president's prospective opponents. Most 2004 White House hopefuls have visited here several times, including Democratic Sens. Joseph Lieberman and John Edwards, and House minority leader Richard Gephardt. All dropped in last week at the state fair, the unofficial outdoor political convention in the Midwest, where candidates dispense handshakes amid championship jars of honey and the boisterous complaint of bantam roosters.
Most of these presidential contenders have also taken time to campaign for Iowa candidates as has Bush, who followed up his state-fair visit with a fundraiser for GOP gubernatorial contender Doug Gross. All this attention has also helped raise the competitiveness of Iowa's congressional races most of which have already pulled in staggering amounts of money for a state of fewer than 3 million people.
The view from under the pork tent
Like most Americans, Iowans aren't all that focused on individual campaigns yet. But in this state of cornfields and cattle farms, politics is never very far from the surface.
Michael Koch, a factory worker from Story City, is sitting down for a meal at the pork producers' tent at the fair. His company, which produces packaging material, just had "huge" layoffs. Although his job was preserved, he's upset about the corporate scandals, saying he's been checking his 401(k) online every day, as it continues to decline. An independent voter who leans Republican, he doesn't yet hold either party responsible for the economic downturn, but says he's looking for "someone who will go out of his way" to fix things.
Although the state is hundreds of miles from New York and Washington, terrorism remains a concern here, and many voters, even Democrats, cite the war on terror as a reason for supporting Bush.
Yet, as Mr. Koch shows, there is growing anxiety about the economy. That could complicate the picture for the president's party, which currently holds four of Iowa's five congressional seats. Democratic challengers here have been aggressively hitting the corporate accountability issue: Democrat John Norris, who is challenging GOP Rep. Tom Latham in the fourth district, was one of the first House candidates in the nation to release a "corporate accountability" agenda, and Bettendorf Mayor Ann Hutchinson (D), who's running against Rep. Jim Nussle (R) in the first district, has been promoting a pension-protection plan for workers.
In a rare shift, the group of voters that's happiest right now may be the state's farmers who have just won passage of the $180 billion Farm Bill in Congress. This may give a boost to incumbents, suggests Edward Wiederstein, a past president of the state farm bureau, who's visiting the fair with his son David from their farm in Audubon. "By and large, farmers are somewhat satisfied," he says, "and when farmers are doing good, people in office usually benefit."
In particular, the farm bill may aid Senator Harkin, who is facing a tough challenge from GOP Rep. Greg Ganske. Harkin, as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, was instrumental in the bill's passage. On the other hand, some of the state's congressional Republicans voted against the bill, and now have to justify their votes to constituents.
"Republicans obviously want to wrap themselves around George W. Bush and the war on terrorism, but then they're immediately asked about the agricultural bill that Bush supported and they opposed," says Arthur Sanders, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines. "So they have to distance themselves from Bush on agriculture."
While the farming community may be relatively content, others throughout the state are feeling a financial pinch these days, particularly in the manufacturing and high-tech sectors.
Kelly Casson, a Democrat from Des Moines who works in product development for Mrs. Clark's salad dressing, says her husband, who's in the computer field, has been out of work since last November. But Ms. Casson, who is at the fair judging a contest for "most creative use" of Mrs. Clark's products (one of the entries is a salad-dressing cake), faults Governor Vilsack more than Bush or congressional Republicans for the state's economic troubles. "I don't know that I'll vote for him, and I'm a Democrat," she says.
In many ways, Casson represents exactly the type of voter Stan Thompson is hoping to win over. A Des Moines lawyer, Mr. Thompson is challenging incumbent Boswell in the new third district, which is made up mostly of the city of Des Moines and its surrounding suburbs, with some additional farmland.
The district may be the most competitive in the state: According to returns from the 2000 election, voters there favored Gore over Bush by just six-tenths of one percentage point.
In a kind of reversal of party stereotypes, the Democrat in the race, Boswell, a farmer and decorated Vietnam War veteran, has strong support from the more conservative farming communities, while the Republican, Thompson, is trying to appeal to urban and suburban voters.
Thompson also represents a certain type of challenger that's common to Iowa: aspiring politicians who cut their teeth working on the caucuses, and therefore bring national connections and savvy to their own races.
In an interview, he mentions casually that he's friendly with White House political director Ken Mehlman, having worked on the Bush campaign in Iowa in 1999. But Boswell, who spent 12 years in the Iowa State Senate and has been in Congress since 1996, comes into the race with far more name recognition, even though he currently represents only about a quarter of the new district.
Campaigning at the state fair, Boswell demonstrates an approachable style. At the pork pavilion, he dons an apron and walks from table to table, pouring water for patrons. Later, at the Democratic booth, a stream of voters most of whom call him "Leonard" come up to shake his hand. One woman says he's the only Democrat she'd vote for.
Both candidates have been campaigning primarily on education and healthcare issues in particular, Medicare reimbursement (Iowa has the lowest reimbursement rate in the country). Boswell has made it one of his primary crusades. But Thompson has been selling his party affiliation as an advantage on the issue, saying, "You know, I can get the White House to listen."
Yet Thompson also admits that it's unlikely he'll get much of a boost from Bush's popularity. "We are not a huge coattail state," he says. "Iowans are pretty good at looking at the person."
Christie Friday would agree with him. A retired farmer from Lorimor who camps out at the state fair every year for all 10 days, she's an enthusiastic Bush supporter. But, in a typical display of Iowan independence, she also plans to vote for Harkin in this year's Senate race, and says she's reserving judgment on congressional candidates.
Indeed, she balks at the suggestion of voting along party lines. "Oh no," says Ms. Friday, as a friend walks up and hands her a pork chop. "I've got to check these people out."