The hopping political scene here feels oddly out of place in the otherwise humdrum national race for control of the House.
Voters cannot flick through television channels, roll the radio dial, glance at billboards or open their clogged mailboxes without being constantly reminded of the congressmen -- not to mention senator and governor -- running in their own back yards.
In a year when fewer than one in 10 congressional races are worth paying attention to, three Republican House members -- thanks to being given districts with new boundaries and consequently new voters -- are fighting for their political lives amid the crisp, golden cornfields of Hawkeye Land. Their fate could very well decide control of Congress on Nov. 5. Early absentee votes show Democrats surging.
The targeted incumbents include such GOP heavies as 26-year veteran Jim Leach, the local congressman here, and Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle. "There are novel aspects to this election" in Iowa, Leach says.
Indeed, he and Nussle are two of only about a dozen House members with seniority and clout in Washington with some reason to fret on Election Day, which helps explain why the House probably won't look or function much differently after Nov. 5.
Democrats need to knock off Leach, one of the nation's most vulnerable incumbents, and perhaps Nussle or Rep. Tom Latham (R) -- whose lead has shrunk considerably in recent weeks -- to win back the House for the first time since 1994, according to political strategists from both parties. The Democrats must pick up six seats overall to prevail -- doable but difficult, the strategists say.
But there's much more at stake here. Iowans, accustomed to playing a prominent role picking presidents with their first-in-the-nation caucuses, could tip the balance of not just the House but also the Senate and governorships this year.
Sen. Tom Harkin, a liberal Democrat in this centrist state, is trying to overcome a local "Tapegate" scandal and beat back a challenge from Rep. Greg Ganske, a moderate Republican. The GOP, needing only one additional Senate seat to recapture the majority, must knock off Democratic incumbents such as Harkin or Sen. Tim Johnson in South Dakota to give President Bush a Republican Senate to work with in the 108th Congress. Harkin is winning, local polls show, though the negative tone of some of his television ads suggest he is not in the clear.
Then there's Gov. Tom Vilsack (D). With 36 governorships in play, and poor economic conditions tilting the field against incumbents, Vilsack has spent more than $2.5 million on television ads since mid-July to try to hold off Republican Doug Gross, a Des Moines lawyer. In interviews, voters seem undecided in this race and unhappy with the choices before them. "I wish we had another option," says undecided voter Dave Altman, 52, of Coon Rapids.
Polls show the contest too close to call.
The political noise generated from these competing campaigns can be deafening. In a recent 15-minute segment on the local news, 11 different political ads aired, most of them dark and derogatory. "I don't know what happens to regular commercials," says Janelle Rettig, 37, a political enthusiast from Coralville. "People are just fed up with the politics you see."
Still it's the highly competitive nature of four of five House races that sets Iowa apart from the rest of nation.
In deals sapping the competition out of most House races across the country, Republicans and Democrats have redrawn congressional districts to protect their incumbents and freeze out the opposition party. How is this possible? After each census (conducted every 10 years), states craft congressional districts based on new population numbers. Some states lose seats, some gain. But most reconfigure their districts in backroom deals that tend to make Republican districts more Republican, Democratic districts more Democratic and leave a dearth of swing districts up for grabs on Election Day.
Not in Iowa, though, where a nonpartisan Legislative Services Bureau sliced up the state based solely on population, not political considerations. The result: four new districts in which neither party enjoys a clear advantage. Rep. Leonard L. Boswell (D) is in a tight race, but is expected to win, observers say. Iowa's 5th District is an open seat, but leans Republican.
Leach, the former chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, is considered the likeliest casualty of the bureau's evenhanded work. The 13-term incumbent was forced to move from Davenport to Iowa City just to avert a brutal primary against Nussle, a fellow Republican.
His house-warming gift: a Democrat challenger named Julie Thomas, a pediatrician whose expertise in health care is a big asset in the current political environment.
As Thomas and all other candidates are quick to note, Iowa has ranked dead last among the states in getting reimbursed by the federal government for Medicare expenses, easily the biggest issue in Iowa politics. "Our delegation has not paid enough attention to it," Thomas complains. On top of that, seniors here are fed up with rising drug costs and the sinking values of their retirement funds.
These issues seem to overshadow talk of war in Iraq or tax cuts or the popularity of Bush in the minds of most Iowa voters.
Yet, underscoring the power of incumbency in politics, Leach is running slightly ahead in the polls in this Democratic-leaning district, despite raising half as much money as Thomas and running what several GOP strategists in Washington called perhaps the worst incumbent campaign in the country.
One reason, say local observers, is Leach's reputation as a moderate, polished by his recent vote against authorizing war with Iraq, and his command of complex foreign policy matters and domestic issues.
At a recent debate sponsored by the Johnson County League of Women Voters here, Leach offered detailed answers to foreign policy questions, refused to endorse the bid of conservative House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) to become majority leader and bowed to many traditionally liberal ideas. "There is no greater no-brainer in American life" than to raise fuel efficiency standards of automobiles, a favorite cause of environmentalists, Leach told three dozen locals gathered for the 90-minute debate.
While Leach, like moderate incumbents in Connecticut and Maryland, often appears to be running against his own party's theology, GOP leaders and their business allies have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the district defending him on the Medicare and Social Security issues. Leach called his own party's ads "objectionable" and said he asked unsuccessfully that they be pulled.
West of here, in Ogden, Democrat John Norris, one of his party's strongest recruits, is hitting Latham on Social Security and Medicare reforms, too. As a result, Norris is rising quickly in the polls, strategists from both parties say, prompting Democrats to shift more money into his race in the final days. Democrats need upset wins by candidates such as Norris to win control of the House.
From small talk at local cafes to speeches at seniors' centers, Norris toes the party line by ripping into Latham for allegedly putting Social Security at risk and failing to get cheaper prescription drugs for the elderly.
But the Democrats' dilemma was evident when Norris passed around a true-or-false questionnaire at the Greenewood Community Center in Jefferson. He asked seniors if they think proposals to direct a portion of Social Security funds into private accounts amounted to "privatization." A group of five seniors was baffled by the question. They complained that politicians are only confusing them on an issue vital to their interests, leaving them uncertain which party wants to help them.
Afterward, riding in his beat-up, blue campaign van, Norris said his race, like the state's other close ones, would be decided by local concerns and, perhaps, dirty tricks and nasty ads.
"Well, they're playing the race card," says Norris, moments after learning that Republicans are circulating a flyer highlighting his relationship with Jesse L. Jackson. Norris seemed to understand that some old-timers here might think twice about him when they learn he helped run Jackson's presidential campaign years ago. That could be enough to the tip the scales in a nail-biter.