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COLUMN ONE

Iowa Turns Pigs Into a Political Football

GOP candidates find themselves caught in smelly debate over huge hog lots. It's a classic example of how caucus campaigning can turn a local issue into a \o7 cause celebre.\f7

February 02, 1996|STEPHEN BRAUN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DES MOINES — Iowa's hog men are tense and fearful this icy winter, and the gloomiest among them are taking their complaints to a captive audience--the Republicans seeking support in the state's Feb. 12 presidential caucuses.

Rooting for votes at the annual Pork Congress, a yearly celebration of rural technology that drew 6,400 pig farmers here this week, is a necessity in any Iowa caucus season. As this year's candidates went about their ritual attempts to portray themselves as the farmer's best friend, their audiences were buzzing about more than federal farm subsidies.

Business is booming in Iowa's swine industry. But the state's quarter-million farmers are torn over who should reap the profits. Iowa has been invaded by giant hog lots, massive porcine warehouses where thousands of pigs are born, fed and mated, then led to slaughter. The growth of these hog cities has roused some farmers to use the caucus campaign to demand that candidates explain how they would stop the spread of noxious swine fumes and wastes and contend with the feared economic displacement.

Every four years, states such as Iowa that play an early and significant role in the presidential campaign impose their own skewed sense of reality on American politics. Local issues can bubble up into prominence at any moment, stirred by intimate encounters between politicians and voters, by activists' cries for attention and by the candidates' hunger for a winning issue. There is no purer way for voters here to remind presidential aspirants that they too have a say in what is important.

"The caucuses are a perfect vehicle for the birth of an issue," said Peverill Squire, a University of Iowa political scientist. "If you can find the right cause to rally people around, you have a ready-made, committed group of voters. Candidates pick up on that."

During the 1980 and 1984 caucuses, vocal Iowa peace and nuclear-freeze activists forced Democratic contenders to take stands on these issues. The Rev. Jesse Jackson took up regional labor disputes to broaden his campaign appeal during his two tries for the presidency.

In 1988, the rising popularity of home schooling in Iowa helped buoy Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson's surprising second-place finish in that year's Republican caucus.

To GOP contenders trying to stay on message this year in a campaign wedded to national issues like the flat tax, the federal budget deficit, abortion and anti-Washington sentiment, hog lots can be a distracting local sideshow--or a pungent opportunity.

Conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan has made hog lots a key issue in his arsenal of populist causes. He rails against "the putrid odors" emanating from "factory farms" (making the issue reminiscent of the criticism directed at then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton during his 1992 presidential bid over the environmental problems caused by his state's poultry industry--another example of a local issue assuming magnified importance on the national stage).

Buchanan has depicted himself as the farmer's only ally against the "cult of efficiency and giganticism" in the heartland. And the depth of rural anger against Iowa's hog lots has impressed Buchanan to the point where he is considering a television ad blitz on the issue.

"Farmers talk about it everywhere I go," Buchanan said after a Des Moines rally last week. "Whenever I bring it up, the audience explodes."

Different Strategies

Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, a farm owner who wooed a handful of Pork Congress delegates in front of a banner urging them to "Put a Farmer in the White House," also refers to hog lots in his speeches. But Lugar shies away from Buchanan's populist tilt, saying the federal government should only get involved if they become "health or safety issues."

The other leading candidates, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, publishing magnate Steve Forbes and former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, rarely mention the state's sprawling concentrations of hogs on their own. They see no advantage in taking up the cause--its populist bitterness does not jibe with their conservative enthusiasm for big-business growth.

They also are aware that any high-profile stumble on local issues can lead to disaster. Democratic contender Michael S. Dukakis was hurt in 1988 when he suggested that distressed Iowa farmers might find a way out of their economic doldrums by growing an alternative crop like Belgian endive. The remark bombed in corn country. Dukakis ran third in that year's caucus.

Even as most of this year's GOP candidates steer clear of the hog lot issue, a few edgy encounters with angry farmers have forced them to become quick studies.

Dole was asked about it during his stop at the Pork Congress, where chattering feed salesmen in pig-head ties hawk their wares, farm boys crowd in awe around towering aluminum grain feeders and farmers' wives applaud their favorite Pork Queen contestants.

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