IOWA FALLS, IOWA — At Baldwin Hardware on Washington Avenue, customers were greeted like family: A nod to George, a wave to Verv. "Howdy, howdy, howdy," one customer called out, cradling a broken clock.
People born in Iowa Falls live and die here. Strangers are rare. In this town of 5,000, fewer than 50 were born outside the U.S. The latest census showed that 97% of the residents described themselves as "white."
But to the Baldwins and many of their customers, friends and neighbors, illegal immigration is the top issue in the presidential primary race. To them, it's about fairness and jobs.
"They have entered the U.S. illegally but they are here, reaping the benefits," said Linsley Baldwin, a Republican who wants tighter border control and deportation of undocumented workers. "I don't think amnesty is the answer. They're earning money and basically not paying any tax on it -- that's the thing that bothers me the most."
As Baldwin, 66, shuffled down an aisle to find a couple of screws for a customer repairing a dinner table, his wife picked up the theme.
"We need to send them back," said Audrey Baldwin, referring to undocumented workers.
A Republican like her husband, Baldwin wants to hear the candidates talk more about immigration before she decides whom to support. She wants to know their position on border control and the North American Free Trade Agreement, which she believes has exacerbated illegal immigration.
"A lot of us feel this way," said Verv Davidson, 75, a retired high school English teacher, who wore a cap spelling out "unity and freedom." "We're not bothered that much [in Iowa Falls] but I look at it as a national issue."
In the last four general elections, Iowa Falls' home county of Hardin has voted for the presidential candidate who won the White House. That bellwether status has drawn both parties' presidential hopefuls, who have visited this picturesque town along the Iowa River a dozen times over the last few months.
The candidates face their first tests of the nominating fight Jan. 3, when Iowa holds its precinct caucuses. Among likely caucus-goers, 81% of Republicans and 67% of Democrats consider immigration a key issue, according to a Des Moines Register poll this week.
"It's a hot political potato," Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York told an audience recently in Iowa Falls. She was repeatedly asked about immigration at various events in the state that weekend. "People are really talking about it, and worrying about it."
The issue also has come to dominate the national campaign discussion.
Some of the harshest rhetoric in last week's Republican presidential debate spun off the immigration issue, as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney accused rivals former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and former Gov. Mike Huckabee of laying out the proverbial welcome mat for illegal immigrants in New York City and Arkansas. Giuliani, in turn, criticized Romney for hiring a landscaping company that employed undocumented immigrants to do work at his suburban Boston home. (Romney fired the firm Tuesday when he found out it was still employing the immigrants.)
Many of the candidates have linked immigration to domestic security.
But in Iowa Falls, where most of the jobs are in construction and residents are older and poorer than the state average, the issue is located squarely in the pocketbook.
"The general anxiety the middle class feel about their economic standing affects how they feel about immigration," said Kevin T. Leicht, a professor of sociology at the University of Iowa. "If middle-class wages were growing and people had steady jobs, I think they would care less about immigration than they do now."
Although the state's economy is doing relatively well compared with the rest of the nation, people in Iowa Falls worry about the future.
The Baldwins remember the recession and farm crisis of the 1980s that created hardship in the community and blighted Washington Avenue.
"They're working for pennies and they're sending those pennies home," said Davidson, who believes immigrants are draining money away from the American economy. Still, he said, "I'd rather give the jobs to them here than sending the work to China. But they need to pay tax and Social Security."
Next door, at a coffee shop, independent voter Patt Dagg said she and her husband had hunkered down financially, anticipating another recession. The couple, who own a small printing shop in town, have already been affected by rising gasoline prices and healthcare costs.
Dagg has noticed what she believes are bad omens for the local economy: the recent closure of a Maytag factory in Newton and undocumented workers laboring for less than minimum wages at a nearby meatpacking plant.
"People are definitely feeling squeezed," she said.