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THE NATION

Nice guy will finish last, and first, in Iowa

Both of the candidates in one tight House race refuse to go negative.

November 04, 2006|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

CEDAR RAPIDS, IOWA — Dave Loebsack believes in giving credit where credit is due. Believes it so much that he recently bought an ad on television here declaring, among other things, that his congressman, Republican Jim Leach, is a "good man."

When a reporter asked what had prompted Loebsack to say that, the bearded college professor replied: "Congressman Leach and I truly like each other. We respect each other."

What's odd about all this is that Loebsack is the Democratic candidate challenging Leach. And Leach, who is facing serious opposition after having held his House seat for 30 years, is treating Loebsack in the same gentlemanly fashion.

Recently, when state GOP strategists sent negative ad mailers to district voters attacking Loebsack, Leach made them stop. Then he apologized to his rival.

Welcome to Iowa's 2nd Congressional District, scene of what may be the most unlikely campaign in the 2006 midterm election cycle.

Almost everywhere else -- in the campaigns that will decide who controls Congress before the 2008 presidential contest -- candidates in both parties are spending millions of dollars trying to demonize their opponents. In appeals aimed at rousing voters' fears and passions, many are scaling new heights of nastiness.

Even in Iowa, other candidates have stooped to suggesting that their opponents were stooges for President Bush or sympathized with communists. Perhaps the sharpest blow of all, one candidate said his opponent was against ethanol subsidies, the "green" substitute for petroleum in gasoline; Iowa leads the nation in producing both ethanol and the corn that goes into making it.

But no such hits have been landed in the Loebsack-Leach contest.

"I can't imagine that there is another race in the country like it," said Peverill Squire, a political scientist at the University of Iowa. "As long as the national parties stay out of the race, voters in the 2nd District can enjoy that rarest of American political experiences: a competitive yet civil campaign."

Although Leach knows it's a tough year for Republicans, he has refused to go negative. When state GOP officials sent out that attack mailer, Leach asked them to stay out of the race. When they did it again, he warned Republican National Chairman Ken Mehlman that he would refuse to caucus with his party when the new Congress convened in January if the negative tactics recurred. Mehlman promised to put a stop to it.

Then Leach called Loebsack and apologized.

"It has been my practice in my campaigns and in my public life over the years to accentuate the positive and run on my record," Leach says.

For Loebsack's part, it was in one of his own TV spots that he described his opponent as a "good man." About the worst thing he's said is that Leach's party membership facilitates GOP control of the House.

He's glad the House Democratic campaign committee, which has been running hard-hitting ads against Republicans in other Iowa districts, has stayed out of his race, Loebsack said.

"I don't want them here," he said. "It would not be in my interest for them to come in and say nasty things about my opponent."

Loebsack and Leach differ from many of their counterparts in another way too: Where other campaign treasuries are bloated with contributions from business, unions and other interest groups, these candidates have relatively small budgets.

Leach takes no money from lobbyists, business, labor or ideological political action committees. Loebsack has accepted PAC money, but he supports public financing of campaigns.

Iowa's 2nd District stretches across the southeast portion of the state. It includes Cedar Rapids, where the air is often filled with the scent of cereal toasting at the Quaker Oats plant -- a smell locals welcome because it means jobs. The University of Iowa, in Iowa City, is also in the district.

The 2nd District has been trending more liberal. In 2004, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts got 55% of the vote.

And today, people here seem as unhappy with the GOP as voters elsewhere. "People are just angry," said Gary Grant, Leach's campaign manager -- and one of Loebsack's former students..

A recent poll of 1,055 likely voters showed Leach ahead, 50% to 48%.

Leach, a former state wrestling champ with a master's degree in Soviet politics from Johns Hopkins University, has a history of independence in Washington. Last year, he was the House Republican who most often broke from his party -- on about 37% of the party-line votes, according to Congressional Quarterly. In 2002, he was one of only six House Republicans to vote against authorizing the use of military force in Iraq.

As a young diplomat assigned to Moscow, he resigned from the Foreign Service in 1973 to protest President Nixon's firing of Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox.

Loebsack, 53, grew up in poverty and worked as a janitor to pay for college. He earned a doctorate in political science at UC Davis and teaches at Cornell College in nearby Mount Vernon, Iowa. This is his first run for public office.

Leach, summing up his reasons for shunning the prevailing approach to politics, said recently: "If you undercut the opponent, and the opponent undercuts you ... how do you bring the country together after the election?"

Loebsack feels much the same way. At the end of the day, he said recently, he wants to "feel good about myself."

Said Squire: "I don't think either candidate has it in him to get nasty."

richard.simon@latimes.com

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