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Thunder in the Heartland

Mike Huckabee, left, and John Edwards campaigning in Iowa.
Mike Huckabee, left, and John Edwards campaigning in Iowa. (By Rick Bowmer -- Associated Press)
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By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Monday, December 31, 2007

PERRY, Iowa -- In the state that will kick off the presidential election this week, it's not a good time to be part of the moneyed elite -- even in the Republican Party.

The crowd at a community center here this weekend is neatly but not flashily dressed, friendly and unaccustomed to hearing a Republican with a message like Mike Huckabee's. His rise has goaded Mitt Romney, who once held a clear lead in the battle for Iowa's caucuses, into a spasm of heavy spending on negative ads and mailings.

You can see why the affable Huckabee has turned himself into the moment's most interesting political phenomenon. "I'm not exactly the pick of some of the East Coast establishment Republicans," the former governor of Arkansas said in a nice bit of heartland understatement. "I think they don't understand a lot of us who don't live in their world."

"If you ask a hedge fund manager what's he worried about, he's going to give you a very different answer than a guy who just lost his job in a factory in Orange City," Huckabee continues in a quiet voice, referring to a town in the western part of the state. And then he speaks up for "the guy in Orange City" who is alarmed by the price of gasoline, the rising costs of college and health care, the inexorable increases in "deductibles" and "co-pays."

As for that hedge fund manager, Huckabee says "the price of gasoline doesn't really affect his getting to work. It's not going to change where he has a vacation this summer. It's not going to change what brand of clothes he wears or where he lives or what he has for dinner."

Huckabee actually is a Republican with a wacky and regressive tax plan, and he dutifully adds: "I'm not against the hedge fund manager." But you know which side of life's struggles he's on.

On Thursday night, Iowa Republicans will render a verdict on Huckabee in what has become a two-way race for first place. Huckabee's campaign is so worried about the Romney barrage that the candidate himself went on the offensive over the weekend against the former Massachusetts governor's "dishonest" attacks. Huckabee's less-than-informed statements following the assassination of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto could also hurt him.

But even if Romney manages to knock Huckabee back, the returns are already in on the trajectory of this campaign. Iowa is shouting a profound discontent with the economic powers not heard since at least 1992.

Just hours after Huckabee spoke Saturday, Democrat John Edwards gave a raucous crowd in Des Moines a rousing anti-corporate oration a few decibel levels above his already fire-breathing stump speech. He attacked "corporate greed," "the glorification of corporate profit," "the banks and the insurance companies," Exxon Mobil and Halliburton, the people who "have a stranglehold on the American economy."

"The richest Americans are getting richer," Edwards said. "How much money do these people need?" Roaring his refrain of "enough is enough," Edwards declared: "America doesn't belong to them. It belongs to us."

Us-vs.-them economic rhetoric is often said to be out of date, impractical, even dangerous. But in the closing days of a very tight race, Edwards has his opponents, particularly Barack Obama, scrambling to make sure a trial lawyer from North Carolina does not corner the market on populism.

Obama is vying with Edwards for the non-Clinton vote, and the Illinois senator was on the air yesterday with an Edwards-like television ad assailing the flow of American jobs abroad. Obama spoke last week of "Maytag workers who labored all their lives only to see their jobs shipped overseas; who now compete with their teenagers for $7-an-hour jobs at Wal-Mart." He had heard from seniors "who were betrayed by CEOs who dumped their pensions while pocketing bonuses, and from those who still can't afford their prescriptions because Congress refused to negotiate with the drug companies for the cheapest available price."

Even Hillary Clinton, whose discourse is typically longer on policy details than egalitarian wrath, told an appreciative crowd in Story City last week that the "interests of working middle-class families" had been "subordinated to the interests of the wealthy and well-connected" and that the Bush administration acted on the mortgage crisis "only after Wall Street began to feel the credit crunch." She promised to "end the student loan industry's scams, which have ripped off families" and condemned "no-bid contracts," "cronyism" and "corruption."

Since the Reagan era, the heroes of the nation's economic story have been valiant entrepreneurs who "took risks" and "created wealth." This narrative advanced the Republican cause and seeped deeply into the Democratic Party. If Iowa is any indication, there is a new narrative in which the old heroes are cast as the goats of the story and the new heroes are people like "the guy in Orange City." There is a thunder out of Iowa, and it is shaking both parties.

postchat@aol.com


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