MARSHALLTOWN, Iowa — It looks to be a case where politicians--surprise!--might be a half-beat ahead of voters.
Without much notice so far, the 1988 GOP presidential campaign has produced a new, sometimes even stirring, plank about "compassion" in government. You can hear it carried on icy winter winds all over this state--invocations for the poor, the disadvantaged and the weak.
Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas: "There is a perception out there that Republicans don't care. . . . That we're all conservative, that we take care of ourselves, and everybody else to heck with them--it's not our responsibility if they are poor, or black or brown, or if they are old or disabled. I want to change that."
Vice President George Bush: "There are those who need help; there are those who have been hurt. And as far as I'm concerned, we will never be a truly prosperous nation until all within it prosper. . . . When wealth becomes an end in itself, our economic triumph becomes hollow. . . . Prosperity with a purpose means helping your brothers and sisters--whoever they are, wherever they are, whatever their needs."
Rep. Jack Kemp of New York: "America must reach out to the weak and those who have fallen behind. That has always been the strength of America."
If the stump speeches of leading GOP candidates evoke a new Republican credo for this election, not so the casual conversations of rank-and-file Iowa Republicans. Over the ritual half-hour of coffee in the morning, or after church on Sunday, in their living rooms or in one of the few saloons here, GOP voters in Marshalltown still seem more comfortable on that familiar ground where government is regarded with suspicion and loathing, not promise.
Pat McVay is a preschool teacher and mother. She has not sided with a candidate yet in the race: "People have got to be responsible for themselves. We have to take some of Washington's responsibilities and put it back to the people."
'Awful Lot of Leaners'
Insurance man Don Diamond, who is siding with Dole: "I don't think the government should provide all the services it tries to provide. There are an awful lot of leaners out there waiting for government to attend to them."
Or Kurt Jackson, who is trying to start up a property management business here and help in the Bush campaign: "The largest waste in the government is the welfare system. And it's not just a waste of money. That money they throw into the system wastes humanity."
The voices are from one of Iowa's 2,487 precincts, the 5th Ward, 1st Precinct of Marshalltown--or simply Five/One.
Here is a community of 25,000 people in the mid-America state where the election of the next President begins in earnest at 7 p.m. on Feb. 8. That is when Republicans convene in precinct meetings--called caucuses--and fill out a preference ballot for candidates of their choice.
For the months leading up to the caucuses, GOP voters of Five/One have cooperated with The Times for periodic dispatches charting the progress of the campaign here on Main Street.
During two weeks of December, Marshalltown Republicans from different stations in life were asked to ponder the issues of 1988 as they see them, not necessarily as defined by polls or by candidates or by news reporters.
The answers among a majority were surprisingly uniform and emphatic. Young, old, well-to-do or struggling, they share a common theme of fire-eating, anti-government Reagan Republicanism. There was almost no interest in new government initiatives, little faith that existing programs were fair or efficient.
"Why don't they have to work like the rest of us?" asks Don McVay about military pensioners who receive retirement benefits while still in their 30s. He is the husband of Pat and a math professor at Marshalltown Community College.
Benefits to Farmers
"Some people who need it the least end up with the most in the farm program," says insurance man Diamond.
And so on.
How could it be that these voters, with repeated opportunities to see and hear the candidates face to face, seem so removed from the rhetoric of their leading candidates on this basic matter of the social responsibility of government?
Geography provides one explanation. Chief purveyors of what might be called this new Republican compassion are three mainline Washington politicians--Bush, Dole and Kemp--whose trust in the helping hand of government is not shared elsewhere. The non-Washington candidates, former preacher Pat Robertson and former Delaware Gov. Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV, have been more conventionally suspicious of expanded federal action for the needy. The sixth major candidate, former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., has not focused on the theme one way or the other.
A Cynical View
A more cynical view from the coastal population centers would be that Iowa is just lagging behind. For many months now, it could be pointed out, the subject of changing values in America has been on the tongues of opinion leaders.