ESTHERVILLE, Iowa — Just in case somebody had missed it--pretty hard to imagine in this rural Corn Belt community--Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole was reminding folks here the other day about his key role in crafting the landmark 1985 farm bill.
The bill that brought a big boost in crop subsidies. The bill that seems to have checked a wrenching tumble in farmland values. The bill that slowed the tide of foreclosures and bankruptcies plaguing family farmers and farm towns throughout the nation's midsection. That farm bill.
"I spent dozens and dozens of hours on the farm bill for you," Dole, the Senate minority leader, told an audience at a community college as he campaigned for votes in the Feb. 8 presidential preference caucuses. "Now I need a couple of hours from you for me. . . . Wouldn't it be great to sit down with somebody in the White House who understands agriculture?"
Call it dumb luck or political savvy, but Dole, from the neighboring wheat state of Kansas, gets to lead off next year's presidential primary season with the heart of his batting order. Four of the states holding early primaries or caucus votes are in the Farm Belt--Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota and Kansas. Backers of the senator are banking on a strong showing in the agricultural heartland to boost momentum for his drive as it moves into the crucial March 8 Super Tuesday round of primaries throughout the South, where Dole is not as well-known.
"The calendar is a big help to us this time around," said Mari Maseng, communications director for the Dole campaign. "We intend to make a lot of blows early and often."
The Minnesota caucuses and South Dakota primary both take place Feb. 23, two weeks before Super Tuesday. In Kansas, the state Republican convention will complete the final phase of selection of GOP delegates on March 5, and Dole will hold a huge home-state advantage if his candidacy is still in good shape then.
But the key to building any farm state momentum is a good start in Iowa, and nowhere is the Dole heartland strategy more evident than here. Only a little more than 1 out of 10 voters in the state actually work the land, but 7 of 10 hold jobs linked in some way to the agricultural economy. Although he has spent the last 27 years in Congress, Dole is the only major Republican candidate with bona fide roots in rural America and he is playing that homespun heritage to the hilt.
"My mother taught sewing lessons and sold sewing machines," he told voters in Estherville, later repeating the story down the road a piece in Emmetsburg and Algona. "My father ran a cream and egg station, later a grain elevator. Wore his overalls to work every day for 42 years and was proud of it."
Dole has lined up an impressive array of endorsements from agricultural officials, including about half of the county farm bureau presidents in Iowa. Last month, the campaign staged ceremonies in Iowa in which Dole accepted an award from the National Corngrowers Assn. for his efforts to stabilize the farm economy.
And at the recent Farm Progress Show north of Des Moines--an annual trade show that highlights the latest in farm equipment and technology--former Agriculture Secretary Earl L. Butz served as the chief recruiter at the Dole campaign booth, the only one set up by a GOP candidate.
If the approach seems familiar to Iowans, it should. Dole is leaning heavily on the electoral trail blazed by Iowa Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley, a Dole ally in Washington and in the presidential race. In 1980, Grassley staged an upset victory over Democratic incumbent John Culver by racking up a substantial edge in sparsely populated rural regions, even though Culver narrowly won the vote in Iowa's seven major metropolitan centers. Dole's Iowa campaign director and chief spokeswoman are holdovers from that successful Grassley team.
Like Grassley, a conservative who bugs the Reagan Administration by veering occasionally from its hard-line views on spending and social issues, Dole on the stump has adopted a moderate tone. There is little talk of strident conservative causes such as ending abortion or supporting anti-communist guerrillas, but plenty of words about the small-town values of plain-spoken compassion and common sense he says he exemplifies.
"If someone you know is hurting or someone you know is in trouble or someone you know is hungry or someone you know is homeless or somebody has a drug problem or someone's lost their farm or someone's lost their business, it's different if it happens in our community," Dole said in Estherville.
"That was brought home to me fairly early in life when I was a county attorney and every month I had to go down the list of welfare recipients and sign 'Robert J. Dole, approved.' And every month I found my grandparents on that list. And they weren't lazy, but they'd been farmers, tenant farmers. And they didn't make it. And they didn't have anywhere else to go but the welfare office."