DES MOINES, Iowa — To recapture control of the Senate, Republicans must make hay in the Midwest around the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. Their targets are incumbent Democrats in South Dakota (Tim Johnson), Missouri (Jean Carnahan), Minnesota (Paul Wellstone) and here, where Tom Harkin is seeking a fourth term.
Harkin, Iowa's first three-term Democratic senator, has won by diminishing majorities — 55.5, 54.5, 51.8. And Iowa is a "tie state" — Gore carried it by just 4,144 votes out of 1,315,563 cast. Harkin's opponent, four-term Rep. Greg Ganske, hopes to find this year's version of the 1958 DeSoto. Ganske, one of 73 Republican freshmen swept into the House by the anti-incumbent tide of 1994, made much of the fact that the car was manufactured the year his opponent was first elected.
This year Ganske is thinking of flying around Iowa in a biplane — "I may even get a white scarf" — saying, "This plane was new when Harkin went to Washington" in 1969 to serve on a congressman's staff. But that idea seems eight years stale. Ganske's more sophisticated idea is to portray Harkin as having conflicting loyalties to Iowans and the national Democratic Party.
South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle, the most prominent national Democrat, has wanted dams north of Iowa administered to increase the flow of the Missouri River in the spring and to decrease the flow in the summer, partly to protect endangered species, but also for the benefit of South Dakota recreation interests. Ganske says Harkin supports Daschle's flow proposals, which Ganske says would increase Iowa flooding in the spring and in the fall would impede the barges that carry Iowa grain. Harkin says he and Daschle support a compromise also supported by Iowa's Republican senator, Charles Grassley, and by both of Missouri's senators.
The national Democratic Party's loyalty to organized labor makes the party increasingly skeptical about free trade, on which Iowa depends for exports of farm commodities and equipment — tractors made in Waterloo, cotton pickers made in Des Moines and combines made by many Iowans who cross the Mississippi River to the Moline, Ill., factory. Harkin counters that he supported NAFTA and other free-trade measures.
Iowa has the nation's fourth-highest percentage of residents 65 or older (14.9), so medicine is on many minds. This usually is an advantage for Harkin. Three of his siblings died of cancer (another became deaf at age 9), and he has emphasized health policy, including a doubling of the budget of the National Institutes of Health. It is unclear if Harkin's strength in this policy area will be countered by Ganske, who is a doctor.
Harkin, a Navy aviator who shuttled planes to and from Vietnam, recently flew a training mission over Iowa in an F-16. "Exhilarating," he said. "These aircraft are marvels."
Exasperating, thinks Ganske, who notes that in 1976, 1977 and 1978 Harkin, then a congressman, voted against funds for F-16 research and development. And Ganske cites a slew of Harkin votes against bills that included F-16 procurement funds.
If at first (and second, and third) you don't succeed . . . Harkin's three Senate victories have come over two conservatives and one moderate from rural areas. Ganske is a moderate representing this capital city, where Harkin usually runs up large majorities. A perennial question is: Does a moderate Republican gain enough centrist support to compensate for diminished fervor from conservative activists? In this case the answer is: Probably, because the tart-tongued Harkin is a liberal who energizes conservatives.
Harkin has beaten four incumbent Republican congressmen (one in winning his first of five terms in the House of Representatives, and one in each of his Senate races). And he has a reputation as a roughneck.
His narrow victory over Rep. Jim Lightfoot six years ago was assisted by "push polling" — spurious polling by telephone callers who asked "questions" designed not to elicit opinions but to spread defamatory rumors. Speaking this week by cell phone while driving through Tennessee to his new home in Orlando, Fla., Lightfoot said that near Election Day 1996, thousands of Iowans — some of whom recorded the calls on their answering machines — were asked, "Would you be less likely to vote for Lightfoot if you knew he was going to be indicted for child molestation after the election?"
"And that," says Lightfoot, "was one of the nicer ones." Ganske expects to be similarly attacked. Harkin says, "I have no idea what they are talking about."
Already the race is as muddy as the Missouri and Mississippi during spring run-offs. On Nov. 5 it may determine control of the Senate.
Washington Post Writers Group