DES MOINES — Among the many ways California Gov. Pete Wilson tried to show Iowans the last two days that he wants to be their friend was to wear a tie decorated with dozens of pigs in polka-dotted shirts.
But even as he sought to establish his kinship, Wilson had to admit the vast cultural gap between where he comes from and the state where he is trying to reach the voters who will conduct the nation's first presidential caucus next year.
"This tie has more hogs than most Californians have ever seen in one place," the Republican presidential candidate told a Rotary Club luncheon of about 150 people in Waterloo Monday.
With his speech and other events, Wilson embarked on one of the biggest challenges facing his campaign--getting to know Iowa, and getting it to know him.
He started Sunday evening, signing autographs and shaking hands at a minor league baseball game. He boasted to local reporters that he qualifies for Midwestern roots since he was born in Missouri. Early Monday in Des Moines, he cut a red, white and blue ribbon to open the first Wilson presidential campaign headquarters outside California.
"We intend to be in Iowa a great deal and we look forward to it," Wilson said. "I'd like to tell [Iowans] my story and I'd like to hear theirs."
The clear front-runner in Iowa among the GOP presidential candidates is Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, who hails from neighboring Kansas. Dole is backed by most of Iowa's major Republican officials and already won the party's presidential caucus once as a candidate in 1988.
With that in mind, Wilson officials say they would be thrilled by a second-place finish next February. "If we make second place, we've done a good job," said Rob Weber, a Des Moines farm equipment manager who signed up to help the Wilson campaign.
Wilson's immediate task is to scratch out a base of support, given that he does not have a natural constituency in the Midwestern farm state. About 30 supporters attended the opening of his campaign headquarters, and several said they were attracted to Wilson because they believe he has displayed deft leadership in steering California through tough times.
Wilson highlighted that issue in his speeches, noting that the troubles plaguing his first gubernatorial term included a record budget deficit in 1992 and a string of 22 national disasters.
"He was a doer," said Sally Novetzke, a U.S. ambassador to Malta under President George Bush who is helping lead Wilson's Iowa campaign. "It was a tough decision for him to . . . raise taxes to get [California] out of the deficit and then rescind the taxes. That impressed me."
Jack Rife, the GOP leader of the Iowa Senate and a Wilson supporter, also said the California record will be a major plus for Wilson. "He dealt with a major crisis in California," said Rife. "To make it through that, and for California to be alive today, is impressive."
Wilson is also certain to be evaluated in Iowa on farming issues. In California, the nation's largest agriculture-producing state, he has been strongly supported by farmers. In the Iowa campaign, a major topic is likely to center on proposals to cut farm subsidies to help balance the federal budget.
Wilson put a toe into the debate Monday, suggesting he would support some cuts in farm subsidies while also pushing for a more aggressive federal effort to open foreign markets for American agriculture.
"Along with the effort to hold the deficit, the [farm] price supports program is going to be affected--the question is, how much?" Wilson said. "What I think is, whatever spending is reduced on farm subsidies, we ought to, as a government, make a concerted effort in talking with foreign governments to insist on market access for our California and Iowa farm produce exports. The future of American agriculture really is in exports."