PILOT MOUND, Iowa — A roadside sign near this hamlet north of Des Moines proclaims the area the friendliest place in America, but what sold last week in the cavernous shed behind John Ferrari's farm was frustration, undiluted.
Seventy-five farmers, farmers' wives and farmers' children sat riveted in the chilly metal barn. Before them, Democrat Richard A. Gephardt dished out heaps of blame for the ills that nearly made this state an anomaly in the last five years of economic boom.
Trade barriers, he said, push the price of beef in Japan to $30 a pound.
"By golly," he said to cheers, "when I'm President, if they're going to sell their products here, I want to be able to go over there and sell them with equal ease."
His Administration, the Missouri congressman said to another roar, will convert Iowa's mountains of surplus corn into ethanol, "put it in our gas tanks and tell OPEC where to go."
And no Gephardt presidency, he said, would shoulder the cost of keeping U.S. troops and bases in Japan.
"You say they don't have military capability" to defend themselves. "Well, they can cut us a check," he said.
Pilot Mound farm wife Dorothy Burkhart went away convinced.
"He acts like he's a common man. That's what I like," she said.
What she liked is vintage populism, a blend of anger and mistrust of outsiders that has fueled Midwestern politics for more than a century.
Gephardt's audience--mostly central Iowa farmers and residents of economically battered factory towns along the Mississippi River--is eating it up.
Since December, Gephardt has vaulted from nowhere to the lead in the Democrats' seven-man contest for supremacy in the Feb. 8 Iowa caucuses.
He did it by tapping Iowans' frustration over their sagging economy, touting his protectionist trade proposals--never highly popular in a state where farm exports are king--as a way to strike back at their distant oppressors.
There is doubt as to how great an appeal Gephardt has in Iowa. The candidate so far has shunned strident remarks in more savvy big cities such as Des Moines and in widely publicized events such as televised debates.
"I think he's desperate to win the Iowa caucuses. Otherwise, his campaign won't go very far," said William Schneider, The Times' political analyst in Washington.
"He's going to have a real problem down the road, however, because his record often does not square with his rhetoric. A lot of his opponents are already pointing this out."
But Gephardt and his top campaign aides, all but written off two months ago, disagree.
They say the common-man campaign shows enormous underlying appeal in polls and--equally important--that it is siphoning blue-collar votes from Gephardt's most serious rival, Illinois Sen. Paul Simon.
Says Message Is Unchanged
Gephardt says his campaign is little changed from its dog days.
"The message is basically the same," he said. "It basically has a new urgency with the coming of the caucuses. We're saying, 'If you want this, now is the time.' "
What ignited the campaign, however, was a celebrated television commercial claiming that unfair South Korean trade restraints pushed the sale price of a $10,000 American sedan in that nation up to $48,000.
As the ad hit home this winter, Gephardt audibly toughened his stump speeches with attacks on new targets: OPEC, East Coast newspapers, grain and oil companies and Washington politicians.
His speeches lumped them with foreign firms and governments into an Establishment that he says sees profit from "an America in decline."
"You think everything's great? That everything's all right? That's what they want you to believe," he told a packed Cedar Rapids farm rally last week.
"This is your country. It's not theirs, it's not anybody else's. It's yours. . . . You have to stand up for change. If you don't do it, who will?"
Most notably, Gephardt has stepped up assaults on Japanese and Koreans, accusing them of not only unfair trading but also of seemingly unrelated sins, such as running an inferior political system.
In Jan. 21 remarks in Des Moines, Gephardt grafted the Japanese into a stock phrase about the American political process. "In Japan and some other countries, when they want to pick a prime minister, five or six people go into a room and pick somebody," he said. "We don't do that here."
Japan's leader, usually the head of the major political party, actually is elected by that nation's 600-member parliament.
In a question-and-answer session that same day in Cedar Rapids, Gephardt addressed a defense spending query by saying: "We're going to spend ourselves blind if there's another arms race. . . . The only people who are going to benefit are the Japanese."
Gephardt says his remarks show no hostility toward Japan. "Not at all," he said. "I usually mention Great Britain as well as Japan. . . . I'm not trying to run down their system at all."