DES MOINES — Listen to the Democratic presidential candidates talk about the economy of Iowa, and visions of a broken state rise up before you.
The Iowa of their rhetoric is a place where countless bankruptcies and foreclosures still threaten the very survival of the American family farm, a state where factory jobs have become so scarce that legions of unemployed leave for the Sun Belt each month.
Their Iowa is, in other words, not just a key state in the presidential campaign--the site of the nation's first Democratic caucuses on Feb. 8--but part of an ailing middle America that badly needs the Democrats' help.
Jobless Rate Falling
But in fact, Iowa is beginning to emerge into a full-blown economic boom. Consider just part of the mounting evidence: The state's jobless rate has fallen from 7% to 4.6% in the past year. Personal income surged 9.7% in the first quarter of 1987, contrasted with a national average of just 1.7%. Iowa farm income is now rising at better than a 25% annual rate, while more than 88,000 new non-farm jobs have been created in the past year.
To top it off, the federal government reported earlier this month that Iowa City had the lowest unemployment rate of any city in the nation, with just 1.8% of its labor force unable to find work.
Many economists and state officials here contend that the oratory of doom and gloom of the Democratic presidential candidates is a lagging economic indicator in Iowa.
"They are coming in from the outside, and news travels slowly, I suspect," sighed Harvey Siegelman, chief economist for Iowa's state government.
'Puzzles Us All'
"I think their speeches don't match the reality," added Bob Boyd, communications director for the Iowa Department of Economic Development. "It puzzles us all."
Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt often tells hushed crowds the story of an Iowa farmer whose son hanged himself from the rafters of a barn after the family lost its farm. "The heart of America's heartland is being torn out," warned Gephardt, who repeatedly stresses that Iowa and the Midwest need his tough trade and farm policies to recover.
Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis frequently contrasts the Midwest's problems with the boom in his home state, and tells his audiences here that he is the man to bring New England-style prosperity back to middle America.
Illinois Sen. Paul Simon stopped to pull down a hand-scrawled "work wanted" sign posted by a roadside during one recent campaign swing, and later dramatically held it aloft as he spoke at a rally. "We need federal policies that encourage the development of a small and varied industrial base in rural communities so that young people who grow up there will have more of a chance for working and staying in those communities," he said.
Working Part Time
Former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt, meanwhile, likes to paint a very personal picture of Iowa's woes for his listeners here. "I have a friend named Russ Anderegg, whose son and daughter-in-law must work part-time jobs to keep their farm solvent," Babbitt said. "It's wrong, and it's time to refocus farm programs before family farmers and our American agricultural tradition melt away."
Such rhetoric is likely to continue despite the ever rosier statistics, Democratic strategists say. "Those indicators (of a recovery) may be very real, but the problems are still fresh in people's minds in Iowa, and not everyone who was hurt has been helped," said Donald Foley, Gephardt's press secretary. "The experience (of the farm crisis) in Iowa has been so real and vivid that it would be a mistake for any of the candidates to talk as if they are ignoring the real plight the people have had."
There are still plenty of Iowans, both farmers and city dwellers, who share the candidates' perception of the state as one still struggling through a farm crisis. And leaders here say even people who are doing well often don't like to let anyone know about it.
As a result, Iowa voters still seem to love it when candidates tell them how bad things are in their own state.
"What has happened in the last year has really been a turnaround," said Iowa Gov. Terry E. Branstad. "But Iowans are different from people in California--they are afraid to admit they are making money. They are afraid of what the neighbors will say."
"Doom and gloom plays better than you might think here, because the farmers are concerned the bad times will come back soon," added Neil Harl, an economist and agricultural expert at Iowa State University.
Still, if the Iowa economy continues to grow at its current pace, the recovery will soon be hard for the candidates and the voters here to ignore.
In the farm sector, which led Iowa into its slump in the early 1980s, the turnaround has been especially dramatic. Agriculture, in fact, is now the engine pulling Iowa out of its recession.
Farm Values Increase