Aren't you angry?" asked Lynn Cutler, candidate for Congress. "I get mad just listening to you."
Lured by the scent of free pizza, a dozen rough-hewn men, laid off at a tractor plant, had come to a local bar to tell Cutler about expired unemployment benefits, endangered pensions and distraught families.
"I'd like to sell my house and get the hell out of here, but I can't," said Douglas Kurash, 31. "There are already 300 homes for sale here."
Nevertheless, Kurash, out of Cutler's earshot, said he isn't blaming President Reagan. "You've got to give a guy four years," he said.
If Cutler, a 44-year-old county supervisor, is to unseat freshman Republican Cooper Evans, she must win over voters like Kurash with her message that the GOP has made a mess of the economy.
However, polls show that this closely watched race is a dead heat, despite the addition of heavily Democratic Johnson County and a substantial war chest for Cutler, who narrowly lost to Evans in 1980 and then became vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
"The biggest danger is that people won't vote at all," Cutler said. "A lot of them feel voting won't make a difference. If people would get angry, we'd be in better shape."
Evans, 58, a wealthy landowner and former Army engineer, is waging a rough campaign, portraying the Chicago-born widow as a liberal outsider. Despite an active pro-Cutler union organization, centered at Waterloo's John Deere plant, the district, represented by Republicans for a half century, identifies with the conservative values of small-town farmers who form its base.
Campaigning across rolling grain fields dotted with neat red barns, Evans, a member of the House Agriculture Committee, charges that Cutler does not understand complex set-aside rules and other farm issues.
"She accuses me of voting for low loan rates for corn," he said. "But when you lower the loan rates, you increase cash deficiency payments. She doesn't understand that."
In an ad campaign that began in August and will saturate the airwaves in the next two weeks, Evans charges that Cutler was absent from her supervisor job 25 percent of the time. Cutler said the absences occurred because she was on county business, or making speeches to support her four children after the death of her husband 10 days before the 1980 election.
Cutler is fighting back in kind with radio and television ads portraying Evans as a "Reagan rubber stamp." Several ads charge him with inconsistency, one picturing a weathervane and asking, "Why does Cooper Evans change faster than the Iowa weather?"
In speeches and campaign literature, both candidates follow their national party lines. Cutler talks about high unemployment. Evans talks about lower inflation and interest rates. Cutler advocates cutting the military budget and "closing tax loopholes for the rich." Evans champions a balanced budget amendment and a constitutional amendment allowing states to regulate abortion.
The closeness of this rematch, and the fact that Cutler has a chance of being an addition to the small number of female House members, has turned it into a Waterloo version of Star Wars.
Democratic presidential hopefuls Walter F. Mondale, Edward M. Kennedy, John Glenn, Bill Bradley and Gary Hart have campaigned for Cutler. President Reagan, Vice President Bush, and Cabinet members John R. Block, Donald T. Regan and Drew Lewis have appeared with Evans.
The race, Evans says, will be "a referendum on whether things are getting better or worse."