Ethanol No Longer the Single Issue in Iowa

The Associated Press
Monday, June 5, 2006; 10:47 AM

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa -- Turns out, Iowa politics isn't as corny as you thought.

For years, conventional wisdom was that presidential candidates could not survive the first-in-the-nation caucuses in Iowa unless they supported subsidies for the corn-based ethanol fuel. But strategists say Iowa no longer is a single-issue state _ if it ever was. At least one presidential hopeful intends to test the premise.

"Ethanol is very important, but Iowans are more sophisticated than that," said a former Iowa Republican chairman, Michael Mahaffey. "I think ethanol could be a bright part of Iowa's future, but it's only a part. I don't think there's going to be some kind of litmus test when it comes to presidential candidates."

Republican Sen. John McCain, an early front-runner in the 2008 sweepstakes, told Iowa audiences recently that he is opposed to all farm subsidies, including special deals for ethanol production.

That is not exactly what people are used to hearing from candidates, but it has not stopped the Arizona lawmaker from collecting some important early backing.

"I don't think it's a make or break issue," said Steve Roberts, a Des Moines lawyer who sits on the Republican National Committee.

Pragmatic Iowa caucus-goers take a lot into account when pondering their picks, strategists say.

Ethanol "is an issue that is probably more important to the Iowa economy than for Iowa voters," said veteran Democratic activist Phil Roeder. "I don't think it's an exclusive issue right now for any candidate for any office."

Drake University political science professor Dennis Goldford said there is a disconnect between the political reality in Iowa and the perceptions of those who parachute into Iowa every four years.

"Consider, for example, a major constituency for the Republicans is Christian conservatives and I don't know that what is driving their agenda is ethanol," Goldford said. "The kind of hot-button, interest-group kind of issues are cultural and social rather than economic."

Others say the marketplace is taking the political pop out of corn.

With oil prices soaring, demand grows for alternatives such as ethanol. The fuel is distilled from corn and then mixed with gasoline in either a 10 percent blend, or a heavier 85 percent blend that requires a specially modified vehicle.

There are tax incentives to produce the fuel, and for those who sell it as well, based on the argument that using ethanol creates a new market for corn and drives up prices. Backers argue the fuel reduces dependence on foreign oil and is good for the environment.

"While oil remains at $65 to $75 a barrel, ethanol is very competitive," said state Sen. Chuck Larson Jr., a former Iowa Republican chairman who has endorsed McCain. "As a result of that there's less political pressure."

That is what McCain hopes.

Just in case, the senator has a nuanced position: He supports ethanol production, especially when gas prices are high, but never the subsidies.

"We need to make some important distinctions," Larson said. "He can absolutely compete in Iowa."

New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, a potential Democratic presidential candidate, caused a stir last month when she called for a massive expansion of ethanol use by offering a tax credit for station owners who install ethanol pumps.

"We've got to take action on this pump issue or we're just spinning our wheels," she said.

Last year, Clinton voted against ethanol interests when she opposed a plan that would require nationwide use of ethanol in gasoline. She and other Northeast lawmakers argued that the legislation would increase gasoline prices in regions outside the Farm Belt.

To be sure, ethanol is still a popular issue in Iowa, site of the January 2008 caucuses.

Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, another Democratic White House hopeful, recently signed into law some new tax breaks for the renewable fuel and set a goal of having 25 percent of the fuel burned in the state be renewable by the end of the next decade.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, once took a big drink of the clear liquid at a congressional hearing in a graphic demonstration that it is safe to consume ethanol.

It may now be safe to oppose ethanol subsidies.

© 2006 The Associated Press