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Foot Soldiers May Be Key to Gramm's Survival in Iowa

Politics: Texas senator has been lagging rival Forbes. But his volunteers are planning to reverse the standings.

February 02, 1996|NANCY HILL-HOLTZMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

AMES, Iowa — Rusty Harder is sitting with his kids in the school library reading them the "Cobweb Queen" at breakneck speed. Every few minutes, he glances at his watch.

It's 7:30 p.m., and by this time he's usually closeted in a cluttered basement office at home working the phone for his favored GOP presidential hopeful, Texas Sen. Phil Gramm. But wife Jo's volleyball night is sacrosanct, so this evening, Harder has stolen an hour away from politics to attend a school reading event.

Harder's kids won't be seeing much of him for the next week and a half. Gramm's political neck is on the block these days, and he is counting on Harder--and hundreds like him--to save it.

In politics, most of the attention usually goes to the big-picture strategists, the high-flying media consultants and, of course, the candidates themselves. But as Iowans prepare to vote 10 days from now in caucus meetings that traditionally have put a premium on organization, the most important people may well be obscure individuals such as Harder.

Nowhere is that more true than in Gramm's campaign. Gramm, who dominated the early days of the campaign last year by virtue of his fund-raising prowess, has been badly overshadowed of late by a candidate who can fund his own campaign--publishing magnate Steve Forbes.

Now, Gramm's faded hopes for winning the GOP nomination depend on a political version of a three-cornered bank shot. The scenario goes something like this: Gramm wins Louisiana's caucuses Tuesday (a contest that only he and commentator Patrick J. Buchanan are seriously contesting), then slips past Forbes into second place behind Bob Dole when voters here go to their caucuses on Feb. 12. That combination, Gramm's strategists hope, would then allow him to slide by the contest's other key early race--in New Hampshire on Feb. 20, where a series of blunders seems to have condemned Gramm to a poor showing--and allow him to fight on as the primaries advance to the South in March.

Gramm's aides insist such a plan is feasible. "History tells you [winning in Iowa] takes a sophisticated organization that stays in touch with people and helps guide them to the caucuses and gets them to turn out," Gramm campaign manager Charles Black said in a recent speakerphone press conference.

The surprise is that strategists in rival camps--and some independent analysts as well--believe that Gramm might just be able to pull off that feat. The reason, they say, is the strength of his county-by-county organization, built on the backs of people such as Rusty Harder.

"If I had to bet money, I would expect Forbes to do not as well as surveys show and Gramm to do better," said Peverill Squire, a University of Iowa political scientist and expert on the state's caucuses. Gramm's volunteers remain enthusiastic and focused on delivering for the Texas senator, he said.

The state's Republican county chairmen seem to share that view. In a recent poll, those mid-level party officials predicted that Gramm, not Forbes, would take second place here.

Similarly, the last Heartland Poll, conducted by the University of Iowa, showed that while Forbes was in second place among all Republicans surveyed, both Gramm's and Dole's support rose among those who said they were most likely to be at the caucuses, according to Arthur Miller, professor of political science at the university and director of the poll.

Harder, a 30-year-old insurance claims adjuster, Lutheran Sunday school superintendent and gung-ho Nebraska Cornhuskers fan, personifies the organization on which Gramm is pinning his hopes.

Harder's own precinct caucus will convene Feb. 12 in the auditorium at the school where he spent his hour recently reading to his children. He is convinced Gramm will emerge victorious here and in all of Story County, population 75,000, just up the interstate from Des Moines in central Iowa.

Caucuses ask a lot of voters. They last two to three hours on a cold winter weeknight. Who goes often depends on promises made to friends, neighbors, fellow workers and churchgoers.

For a year now, Harder has been building and cementing those relationships, leaving no stone unturned in his mission to make Story County Phil Gramm territory.

"If somebody barely mentions politics I jump into the conversation and say, 'This is why you ought to be listening and talking to Phil Gramm,' " Harder said.

Why Gramm? A few minutes of "genuine" contact at the state Republican convention in 1994 did the trick. Gramm walked up, stuck out his hand and introduced himself. Waving off aides who tried to pull him away "to meet somebody more important" Gramm spent several minutes with Harder, a self-described "average Joe."

Gramm's economic proposals won Harder over. Harder said his father was a dirt-poor farmer whose five kids all graduated from college and bettered their lot. He worries the same opportunities won't be there for his kids, Zachary, 7, and Ashley, 6, unless government spending is reined in.

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