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Caucus Choices : Iowans Find Few Stars in Their Eyes

IOWA'S ACTIVISTS: One of an occasional series on the people who will do the choosing in the first major event of the presidential campaign.; Today: The Democrats.

October 28, 1987|MAURA DOLAN | Times Staff Writer

NEWTON TOWNSHIP, Iowa — Jasper County Auditor and Election Commissioner Linda Gifford dropped Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt from consideration after meeting him. "He kind of twitches and his eyes kind of shift," she said.

Rosemary Hartschen, a teacher, has crossed Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis from her list because "it wasn't nice" when his former campaign manager distributed a videotape that helped push Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. out of the race.

Mary Lee Rusk, an advertising saleswoman, said she would not vote for the Rev. Jesse Jackson because he has no experience in government and "his color will make him vulnerable" in a general election.

And Lee M. Walker, an attorney, does not think Illinois Sen. Paul Simon is electable because he wears a bow tie. "Iowans don't trust a man who wears a bow tie," Walker said.

Opinions Matter

The opinions of these four Democrats might not matter anywhere outside this township. But here, in this presidential election season, their opinions matter very much. For they plan to stand up for a candidate in the Feb. 8 caucuses, a delegate-selection process where presidencies can be launched and would-be presidencies grounded.

The Iowa caucuses are considered important because they are the first major contest in the race for the nomination. The results provide one of the earliest yardsticks of a candidate's voter-appeal, and the news media cover them heavily. Candidates who do well or better than expected suddenly may be perceived as winners and use the good showing to propel themselves in other states. By the same token, candidates who come in at the bottom may be perceived as losers, their candidacies taken less seriously by the media and contributors.

So the candidates cater to caucus-goers, wooing them with literature, telephone calls, birthday cards and even, perhaps, a personal visit. In turn, these Democrats tend to take their political responsibility seriously. Even now, with the caucuses a season away, many caucus-attendees here already have met the candidates and studied their positions. They are making lists of their favorites--eliminating candidates not only because of their views, but at times because of what they wear or the sound of their voice--and soaking up all the attention in the meantime.

Any registered Democrat can stand up for a candidate on caucus night. But unlike primary voting, where the selection is made in the privacy of a booth, caucus-goers must declare their choice before all to see. Sometimes, the negotiations and pressure of their fellow attendees are intense.

In the months before caucus night, the attendees mingle with would-be presidents, interrogate them or criticize them to their face. Shopping candidates in Iowa involves only a trip around the corner. The process is intimate.

Mothers line up their children next to a candidate and snap photographs. If that particular contender is elected, the pictures may be framed. They shake the candidates' hands, tell them their personal troubles and, if their choice is elected, they may even be invited to the White House.

Newton, located 34 miles east of Des Moines, is a popular stomping ground for candidates. It is the judicial seat of Jasper County and home of Maytag. The town's promoters call their community of 15,300 "The Home Laundry Appliance Center of the World." More than 3,100 workers here produce every single Maytag washer and dryer in the nation, churning out more than 1 million home appliances every year. Most of these workers are members of the United Auto Workers, a powerful union in Iowa.

Town Prospered

Founded here in 1893 as a producer of farm implements, Maytag has made Newton prosperous. Townspeople take pride in producing a product whose repairmen are the loneliest in town. The few who dare criticize the company quickly snatch back their words and admonish the listener not to repeat them to their neighbors.

Newton has a distinctly Midwestern appearance. The town square is dominated by an imposing, old courthouse with a clock tower. Low, brick buildings surround it, including an F. W. Woolworth store with a red-and-white striped awning, a Sears catalogue outlet and a movie theater with a marquee.

The township, an unincorporated community, wraps around Newton's northern boundaries. It contains the high-income Bittersweet Acres and the low-income Country Club Acres. Suburban tracts are sliced by fields of corn and soybeans and cattle-grazing pastures. There are 373 registered Democrats in the township, but fewer than one-third go to caucus.

Here are the opinions and experiences of 10 who plan to attend:

On a cold, windy night with a harvest moon, Linda Gifford was at home, nursing a cold. Shortly before 8 p.m., the telephone rang. She picked it up reluctantly.

It was a caller representing Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr., who wants to be President and wants Gifford's endorsement.

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