Because of a typographical error, an article about Iowa Gov. Robert D. Ray in Sunday's Washington Post incorrectly stated that the governor and the state Democratic party favored imposing the death penalty. The story should have said the governor and the party opposed the death penalty.
The trouble with Bob Ray, the woman at the State Democratic Central Committee meeting was saying, "Is he's just a nice guy."
"I can't say anything bad about him," she continued apologetically. "A lot of the things he stands for I believe in. Half my good Democratic friends vote for him every time he's up."
The woman doesn't want her name mentioned for obvious reasons: She is a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat who has held party office for more than a decade. And Bob Ray is a Republican governor of Iowa, and one of the most popular political figures in the state's history.
Ray, 49, is running for an unprecendent fifth term this year, and is expected to win hands down. "He'd have to do something like kill his mother or run off with the state dome to keep from being reelected," says one top-ranking Democrat.
At a time when only 12 Republicans sit in governor's chairs in the country, the Bob Ray phenomenon is this state's most intriguing political story. In 14 years as Iowa's top Republican - nine as governor and five as GOP state chairman - he has survived the GOldwater debacle, Watergate and the majority of the state's courthouses going Democratic. Not only survived, but prospered.
How has he done it? What is his secret?
The answers his friends and supporters give are mushy cliches: He's open, candid, honest, hard-working and clean-cut. He is, they say, a kind of corn-fed all American governor whose only real vice is that he likes to eat too much ice cream.
There is obviously a good deal more to the Ray phenomenon. A lot of it has to do with being a good, hard-ball politican, who has mastered the all-important skills of timing, public relations, alliance building and knows when to pick battles and when to keep his mouth shut.
But Ray has also tapped the state's nerve endings in an intangible, hard-to-define way. The biggest thing is that during his administration Iowans have become proud of being Iowans.
When he became governor in 1969, "he was surrounded by the pervasive attitude that Iowa at best was second or third rate," James Flamsburg the Des Moine Register's respected political columnist has written. "Sometimes it, seemed that people talked about nothing other than Iowa's hopeless inadequacies and how a person's only reasonable solution was to go elsewhere . . . Ray has probably spent more time fighting that falsely based attitude than he has spent on any other thing."
Today the outmigration that plagued this state during the 1950s and 1960s has almost stopped. The "brain drain" is no longer a topic of consequence. And the University of Iowa marching band is playing the "Iowa Corn Song," which it wouldn't touch a few years ago, during half-times at football games.
This may have more to do with the national psyche than anything Ray has done. For Iowa hasn't changed that much.
It is still a predominantly rural place with only one real city (Des Moines), a place that a recent Iowa poll found has a fundamental trust in institutions. "In God We Trust, and state troopers too," the newspaper report on the poll said. "But not in labor unions, government agencies or real estate agents."
But a subtle change has taken place. "Now being a hick isn't so bad as it used to be because hicks have clean air to breathe and clean water to drink and don't have to worry about being mugged when they go to the grocery store," says Jerry Mursener, a former newsman who has gone to work for the Iowa Republican Party.
"We've always had these things, but they seem a lot more important now than they used to," says Mursener.
A good case can be made that Iowa has suffered a bum rap over the years.
Statiscally, its people are better educated (the state has the lowest illiteracy rate in the nation), better paid and healthier than most places. Unemployment is typically half the national average. And there is one-third less crime here than the rest of the country.
Per capita spending on health, education and welfare ranks in the top 14 states in the nation, according to one study. Per capita income is higher than 30 other states, including Ohio, Texas, Minnesota, Virginia and the entire South.
Iowa politics are so clean that even an honest politician from a place like Baltimore would look like a crook here. Ray is tailor-made for it. He has shown an uncanny ability to become identified with almost everything good in the state. "He gets credit for anything positive that happens here," says one observer. "But whatever shortcomings there are in his administration he doesn't get blamed for them."
Iowa, for example, is credited with avoiding many of the oil problems that many states face because Ray saw the energy crisis coming six years ago and set up a system to allocate supplies. A Ray-backed program to give tuition grants to students attending Iowa private colleges has been credited with keeping many of them afloat.
He has benefited from a friendly press and more than a little press agentry. He is extremely accessible to reporters and held five press conferences a week during the early years of his administration (he has cut back to three a week).
"Bob Ray has been popular because of the Democratic Party," says state Democratic chairman Ed Campbell. "Every time he has run, he has enjoyed heavy Democratic support. During the last Iowa poll 40 percent of the Democrats said they'd vote for him.
"A lot of issues he's come up with are Democratic issues," Campbell continues. "We've let that guy get away with political murder . . . We've never taken him out in the street."
Ray has found himself in league with Democrats in removing the sales tax from food and drugs, and in imposing the death penalty and wiretap legislation. This year he pushed for a bottle bill, similar to one introduced by a Democrat six years ago.
"It's hard to find anything wrong with Bob Ray. He is sort of above it all like Eisenhower," says another longtime Democrat, Charles Hammer of Ames. "He is very adept at choosing his issues. He's not afraid to adopt the Demoratic platform. He is a good up-front man but he's very inept as a leader."
This understates Ray's record as a politician and as a top administrator - one that belies his nice-guy image. "I've seen dozens of people he appointed disappear quietly over the weekend," says one friend. "He's tougher than people give him credit for."
Ironically, Ray's harshest enemies are conservative Republicans. His biggest failure may be his inability to translate his personal popularity into gains for other candidates. Iowa, which has only voted for one Democratic presidential candidate in the last quarter century, now has two Democratic senators; four of its six congressmen are Democrats; and the Democrats control the state legislature and the majority of the county courthouses.
Tom Whitney, a former state Democratic chairman, and Jerome Fitzgerald, state House majority leader, are vying for the Demoratic nomination to oppose Ray next fall.
But the race that holds the most potential for a Ray defeat is a battle for the Republican senatorial nomination. Ray's unofficial candidate, state Commerce Commissioner Maurice Van Nostrand, is trailing a conservative candidate, former lieutenant governor Roger Jepsen, in that race, according to polls.
Jepsen is a long-time Ray rival and a victory for him would be considered a major defeat for the governor.