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But He Remains a Long Shot : Jackson Candidacy Shows Growing Appeal in Iowa

December 07, 1987|MAURA DOLAN | Times Staff Writer

GRINNELL, Iowa — The Rev. Jesse Jackson had just finished another campaign speech in yet another small, predominantly white Iowa town, and now his burgundy mini-van was about to pull away. Before an aide could shut the door, the town's police chief appeared. The lawman, who was white, thrust his hand through the open door and showed his police badge. Jackson looked at it, dumbfounded.

"Rev. Jackson," the police chief said. "Would you bless this for me?"

The episode, which occurred on a recent cold, wintry morning, caught Jackson off guard--but only for a minute. After months of campaigning here, the black Democratic presidential candidate is becoming accustomed to receiving from white audiences the kind of enthusiasm and affection that in 1984 he inspired in black constituencies.

He beamed, took the police badge between two hands and gave it a good rubbing. "God bless you," he said, warmly shaking the chief's hand.

The civil rights leader's presidential candidacy has touched off unexpected excitement in Iowa, stunning outsiders and initially catching Jackson by surprise. Both a celebrity and a novelty in this white, rural state, Jackson draws bigger crowds than any of his presidential rivals and leaves them thinking seriously--if only temporarily--about his candidacy.

No-Lose Situation

For Jackson, it is a no-lose situation. The expectations he must meet are in the South, where black voters are expected to turn out in large numbers for him. A decent showing here would help refute the notion that he cannot expand his appeal beyond blacks. But the demographics of the state are against him, and no one expects him to show at the top.

For the Iowa Democratic Party, Jackson's position is equally attractive. Party leaders hope his popularity will undermine criticism of Iowa as too white, too rural and too unrepresentative to host the nation's first presidential contest.

By the same token, party leaders probably would be less thrilled if Jackson were actually to win Iowa because few believe he could go on to capture the White House. The party, anxious to maintain the state's pre-eminence in the presidential picking, wants to launch a candidate who can capture the nomination and win a general election.

Blacks compose only 1.4% of Iowa's population, and minorities less than 3%. Yet Jackson has polled in the high single or low double digits in recent surveys of Democratic caucus-goers. In the most recent Iowa Poll, Jackson captured 11% of the vote. He came in fourth, just 2% behind Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, who has spent substantially more money and time in the state, and well ahead of former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt and Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr.

'The Second Big Story'

Phillip Roeder, a spokesman for the Iowa Democratic Party, says there is a "very strong potential" that Jackson will emerge from the Feb. 8 presidential caucuses with double-digit support, making him "the second big story" out of the caucuses--next to the winner.

"He makes people feel good," the party official said. "He gives people a feeling of hope, that somebody wants to solve problems for them. And after what the Iowa economy has been through in the past couple of years, that is attractive."

In 1984, Jackson spent only one day here. He now attributes the snub to lack of time and planning. This time, he has racked up 40 days in Iowa's barnyards, union halls, high schools and college campuses--less than most of the other candidates but enough to give him an Iowa presence.

To follow Jackson in this state of cornfields and cow pastures is to watch him amid a sea of white faces. White aides usher him to and from predominantly white audiences. Middle-age men in feed grain caps and overalls come up to shake his hand. Their wives hug him, their youngsters ask for his autograph. Farmers provide their hogs and Holsteins for photo opportunities.

Plates of Ham, Vegetables

A gray-haired couple chauffeurs him around in their camper, the wife hovering over Jackson with plates of smoked ham and vegetable sticks, her husband at the wheel. At a recent rally for Gephardt in Newton, a farmer in the audience said he hoped Jackson would be Gephardt's running mate.

The first sign that the civil rights leader might ignite a spark in Iowa came last January. It was Super Bowl Sunday, and the candidate was to speak at a Methodist church in Greenfield, a tiny, not very prosperous, farm town an hour from Des Moines. With the football game on television, organizers expected about 100 people to show--maybe 200 if they were lucky.

Seven-hundred Iowans crammed the church.

"Of course, it blew everyone's mind that in a rural community like this, Jackson would excite so much interest," said Dixon Terry, 38, a Greenfield farmer and founder of the influential Iowa Farm Unity Coalition, a farmers' lobbying group.

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