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Iowa governor faces tough reelection as another state sours on incumbents

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By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 8, 2010

MASON CITY, IOWA -- Republican Terry Branstad's lines have a familiar ring as he campaigns to return to the governor's office after 11 years away. He blasts the incumbent Democrat for "mismanagement," promising an "economic comeback" and the end of "more government than we can afford."

The pitch is working. Early polls show Branstad with a lead as large as 20 points over Gov. Chet Culver (D), who is battling a poor economy and frustration fueled by Capitol Hill vitriol that incumbent politicians are not delivering.

The state that launched Barack Obama toward the presidency just two years ago is looking like a tough sell for Democrats in 2010. Culver is in trouble, Rep. Leonard Boswell (D) is threatened and President Obama's popularity has dropped by one-third since he took office.

Since the beginning of 2009, unemployment has risen by half, to about 6.5 percent -- high for Iowa, although lower than the national average. Tax revenues are down and social service needs are rising. The legislative news from Des Moines, where both chambers are controlled by Democrats, is often gloomy.

As for Obama, Ron Cline, a founder of the North Iowa Tea Party, put it this way: "He said he was going to change things. He did. They're worse."

A tea-party billboard in downtown Mason City reads, "Socialism. Change We can't afford!"

Culver and Obama are suffering from different problems in a state where the pull of party is limited, and where 47 percent of voters called themselves "independents" in a recent poll. Evidence suggests that confidence in Obama could return if the economy continues to improve and if he engineers a few legislative successes.

"I don't think people think he's a lost cause," said J. Ann Selzer, who has been polling Iowans for years. "What he doesn't have is a Congress that works very well, and he was hands-off. If he's able to make things happen and explain things differently, people's support will come back."

None of that is certain, of course. A fierce battle is underway over Obama's proposed health-care reforms, the economy is still sputtering and the administration is struggling to solve conundrums from terrorism trials to financial regulation.

Republican strategist Craig Robinson sees "a dissatisfaction with everything Washington," but he noted starkly different attitudes toward Culver and Obama, who worked Iowa hard as a candidate. "Both times we have done polls -- July 2009 and January 2010 -- Obama's numbers were above 50 percent and Culver's were in the dumps," Robinson said. "I don't think Iowans necessarily approve of his agenda, but . . . like him personally."

Against the tide

Emily Bowers, an unemployed northern Iowa factory worker, is one of those holding out hope for Obama. "He's trying. You've got to give him time," she said. "Especially with the big hole he came into." She is not so generous to Culver -- Bowers expects to vote for Branstad if he wins the GOP primary in June. She remembers him positively from his previous 16 years in the state Capitol, which ended in 1999.

"We're calling this the comeback campaign," said Branstad, 63, referring to his political career and the state's economy. He criticized Culver for what he called poor personnel choices and "huge deficits."


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