Though it is far too early in this story to be discussing frozen bull semen, let us just say, for now, that Al Gore has made some very impressive efforts to befriend the Iowa farmer.
There was the day, for instance, Gore showed up at the McKinney farm in bluejeans, denim shirt and cowboy boots. He spent 45 minutes working on the tractor, then joined a potluck supper and slept overnight in the farmhouse. And many an Iowan has heard the vice president brag about his farm in Tennessee, or lament the low price of a bushel of corn.
Sure, Bill Bradley can accuse Gore of living in a "Washington bunker." But last week, Iowans heard Gore offer to help a farmer who complained about getting butted by a 300-pound ram whenever the farmer was working with the ewes. Last year, Gore visited the Iowa State Fair and won the support of the woman who sculpts a life-size cow from butter. "I wonder what people will think of Iowa when they read in The Washington Post that the lady who carved the butter cow is a Gore precinct captain," worries Steve Hildebrand, a South Dakotan who is directing Gore's campaign in Iowa.
One also wonders what Iowans think of Bradley, the former senator from New Jersey, when he has his photo taken in front of a cartoon of a "genuine Iowa pig." Or when Bradley visits a three-story bull named Albert in Audubon. Or when the former NBA star talks daily about his small-town roots, or flips pork chops with the Iowa Pork Producers. Surely they are impressed by his road-to-Des Moines conversion on the virtues of ethanol, and his ability to speak the language of "terminator seeds" and "GMOs" (that's genetically modified organisms, for you city slickers).
In Iowa these days, it feels as if the suburbanization of America never happened. Both gentlemen vying for the Democratic nomination--Gore of St. Albans and Harvard, Bradley of Princeton and Oxford--are farm owners. Neither seems to have a clue what happens on these farms. But never mind: They are outdoing each other in farmer friendliness as Monday's caucuses approach.
So resumes the time-honored ritual of pandering to the Iowa farmer, a mainstay of presidential politics since the first-in-the-nation caucuses began in 1972. Every election year, Americans complain that the Iowa caucuses, with their heavy emphasis on agricultural issues, don't represent urban, industrialized America. Now the Iowa caucuses are not even representative of Iowa.
Agriculture's share of income in the state has declined from 15 percent in 1965 to about 3 percent today. Fewer Iowans work in agriculture than in manufacturing. And while the farm economy is in crisis now--prices are at historic lows--the Iowa economy has hardly noticed. Unemployment is 2.1 percent, half the national average, and personal income is growing at a 7 percent clip.
"Any candidate tries to create an issue," says Harvey Siegelman, the state economist. But while small, family farmers feel the pinch, he says, the truth is this: "There really isn't very much misery."
And yet the candidates continue to build a bridge to the 19th century. Earlier this month, Gore flew a New Jersey grain farmer, Roy Etsch, here to tell his farmer brethren in Iowa that he doubts Bill Bradley "understands the difference between corn and soybeans." Gore also got Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin to scold Bradley, while not directly naming him, in TV and radio ads for voting against flood relief, farm credit, crop insurance and ethanol subsidies. Last week, Gore and Bradley traded barbs from rival barns.
Why the farm obsession? In part, it's nostalgia. "It's a symbol of Iowa, it's hearth and home," says Dan Lucas, Bradley's Iowa manager, who usually lives in Arlington. "What are we tied to, if not the land?" Bradley looks at rural life and "gets in a very Jeffersonian state of mind," Lucas says.
There's another, simpler reason for the agrarian anachronism. A Des Moines Register poll found that 41 percent of likely Democratic caucusgoers come from farms or towns of under 5,000. Using more conservative estimates, Gore's Hildebrand figures that 14 percent of Democratic caucusgoers are directly affected by agriculture. That's equal to the number of caucusgoers in Polk County, the largest in the state. And among farmers, Hildebrand figures, Gore is ahead by more than two to one.
This is one reason why Gore, by most reports, is far ahead of Bradley in Iowa. For all of Bradley's talk about running a different kind of campaign, the caucus is still about the nuts and bolts of old-time politics: Lock up labor, lock up the farmers and get 'em to the caucuses. When it comes to organizing farmers, Gore has more machinery in Iowa than John Deere.
Bradley, for sure, has done everything to stop Gore but don overalls and hold a pitchfork. He has had at least 25 meetings with farmers, including six farm visits. He persuaded agriculture officials from the Kennedy, Johnson and Carter administrations to send a letter to newspapers comparing Bradley to JFK, another "urban state" Democrat who did right by farmers. Bradley has even hinted he'd select Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack as agriculture secretary.
Mostly, though, Bradley has been trying to convince farmers that Gore and his boss have been doing a lousy job. "Are Iowa farmers better off today than seven years ago?" is the question Bradley asks everywhere, in person and in mailings. The campaign offers statistics on the crisis: a 24 percent inflation-adjusted drop in farm income, a 36 percent drop in hog prices, 6,000 farms gone, all since '92. He blasts Clinton and Gore for the Freedom to Farm Act, which caused much of the problem by reducing government payments to farmers. This line of attack is blunted only by the fact that Bradley voted for it, too.
Regardless of what happened on Gore's watch, the vice president seems to be winning the argument with Bradley. When Gore, in an Iowa debate, called on a flood-ravaged farmer to ask Bradley why he opposed flood relief, Bradley responded, weakly, "This is not about the past." The senator still hasn't recovered.
"The past does matter," says a Gore strategist in the candidate's headquarters here. "Even though Al Gore grew up in the Fairfax Hotel, he represented a rural district."
Ah, yes. The Fairfax Hotel. It was nearly a year ago that Gore, in a flight of pastoral embellishment, remarked on his youth on the farm in Tennessee, plowing the fields, shoveling manure and the like. Suddenly, the senator's son who grew up in a Washington hotel was portraying himself as Farmer Al--to near-universal ridicule. The farm story, along with his claims of Internet paternity, became a symbol of his floundering campaign.
Yet a year later, Gore is a certified friend of the farmer and he has eyewitnesses to prove it. Gore's campaign has come up with a couple of Iowa farmers who attest to young Gore's work as a farmhand. Berl Priebe, 81, remembers seeing a young Al at a cattle show. "He was cleaning up behind the cows," Priebe attests. "At least he knew what end of the fork to use."
And that's where the frozen semen comes in.
It was November 1965 when Max Mugge and his father, of Cherokee, Iowa, entered into an agreement with the elder Al Gore. "We ended up with a bull together," says Mugge, who still has the papers. The Gores kept the bull on their farm in Carthage, Tenn., and sent the dividends to the Mugges in Iowa, frozen and packed in liquid nitrogen. "We got the semen," Max Mugge says. And Gore will get his vote.
These days, Mugge is happy to vouch for Gore's farming credentials. "He has a little bit of farming background--not a lot, but some," Mugge says. "I'm sure he was out on the Gore farm enough that he knows a little about what's going on." To demonstrate his support for Gore, Mugge used a 20-acre field to carve the letters G-O-R-E with a cornstalk cutter. The letters are "35 rods up and down," Mugge reports. That's 577.5 feet high, city dwellers.
Of course, Gore would have known that.
CAPTION: High on the hog: In August, the urbane Bill Bradley answered the call of the Iowa Pork Producers in Des Moines.
CAPTION: Al Gore, who has made the most of his farm roots during his Iowa campaign, last week at the Roarson Farm in Sloan City.
CAPTION: Al Gore taking questions at the Roarson Farm, left. Bill Bradley and the "Corn Man" stalker.