DES MOINES, OCT. 30 -- Iowa's "Two Toms" came home this week, free at last from the budget melodrama on Capitol Hill and ready to rejoin a contest that is undergoing a third transformation.
At first the Hawkeye Senate race between Sen. Tom Harkin (D) and Rep. Thomas J. Tauke (R) attracted attention as a stage for the national abortion debate. Then, after Iraq invaded Kuwait, it appeared that issues of war and peace would dominate in this peace-loving state. Now the contest essentially has been reduced to a battle of fundamental economic messages derived from the long and bitter budget doings in Washington.
The Harkin message, distilled in television and radio commercials running across the state this week, is this: "Tauke for the Rich/ Harkin for Fairness."
Tauke's counter-message: "If you want 10 or 12 or 14 percent increases in federal spending, vote for Harkin. If you want to control taxes, vote Tauke."
There is nothing novel in these messages. For generations, Democrats have focused on issues of economic and social equity, while Republicans have positioned themselves as the party opposed to taxes and increased government spending. But this fall, for perhaps the first time in a decade, the Democrats believe they are winning the message contest because of an accumulation of events -- growing fear of a recession, President Bush's retraction of his "no new taxes" campaign pledge and GOP opposition during the budget deliberations to tax hikes for millionaires.
For Harkin, a self-styled populist who owns a vacation home in the Bahamas but has made a career out of running on "the rich versus the rest of us" themes, the course of political discourse this fall seemed especially fortunate. "This whole budget mess has brought into sharp focus the legacy of the Reagan era, an era of unfairness," said Tim Raftis, Harkin's campaign manager. "Protect the rich, balance the budget on the backs of farmers and seniors. People are tired of that. They want the wealthy to pay their fair share."
Arthur Davis, a prosperous Des Moines lawyer and longtime Democratic activist who chairs Harkin's reelection committee, said that one recent day he was confronted by a wealthy friend in downtown Des Moines who blurted out: "What are you guys trying to do -- start a class war?" No, Davis said he responded, "we're trying to end one."
In the Senate, Harkin sponsored an unsuccessful budget amendment seeking to increase to 33 percent the income tax rate on the nation's millionaires. Tauke, in the House, opposed that concept unless it was coupled with a cut in the capital gains tax rate. Both men, for markedly different reasons, ended up voting against the budget compromise last weekend.
Tauke still trails in the polls, but the 14-point lead that Harkin held three weeks ago has narrowed considerably. Republicans have history on their side in this race, if that means anything: No Democratic senator in Iowa has ever won reelection.
Tauke, who will share the stage with Vice President Quayle in Mason City on Thursday and with Bush in Sioux City on Friday, said of the budget agreement accepted by the administration: "It's a disaster, a bad deal -- what we have here is the tax-and-spend crowd winning another round. I can't find much good in it."
Harkin, on the other hand, said the vote was "one of those 51-to-49 things for me. I had to really weigh it. I will admit it was better than the first proposal -- the tax burden is spread more equitably." But he said he voted no because the measure cut farm price supports by between 25 and 41 percent, failed to eliminate a single major weapon system and lacked a surtax on millionaires.
But if national Democrats in Washington have convinced themselves that the average voter in Middle America -- perhaps angry, disillusioned, fed up with politicians -- has connected with the party on the fairness issue and turned away from Bush and the Republicans, such movement was hard to discern Monday among the podiatrists, merchants, warehouse managers, farm implement executives and retirees who gathered for the weekly luncheon of the Ottumwa Rotary Club.
Of 12 members of the club interviewed during lunch, all but two said they did not blame Bush for the budget mess, thought he would regain his popularity and considered high taxes more of a problem than unfair taxes.
Ottumwa, a hilly town in south central Iowa, is traditional Democratic turf: Even Dwight D. Eisenhower lost there. When Harkin addressed the Ottumwa Rotarians, he presented the fairness issue on two levels. First he talked about taxes: "Those who benefit most from our system -- the Donald Trumps and Leona Helmsleys -- ought to be paying more." Then, as his hosts sliced and chewed grilled ham, Harkin talked to them about political pork.
After the 1990 census, he said, Iowa will lose another congressional district because of population decline and redistricting. When that happens, and the Big 3 states of Florida, Texas and California gain even more congressional clout, "I want to make sure Iowa gets its fair share. I make no bones about it, I intend to use my position to help the state of Iowa."
Harkin listed the projects he has already brought to the state in agriculture, aviation research and microelectronics. He boasted that it was no accident that Iowa, with the second-ranking Democrat on the Appropriations transportation subcommittee, has the second most highway demonstration projects in the nation.
When he finished, a Rotarian at the head table rose from his chair and, with a sheepish grin, said: "I have a stupid question, senator: If Congress is really serious about cutting the budget, why are all these pork-barrel projects . . . still in the budget?"