DES MOINES, Iowa -- After a summer of relatively clean campaigning, the Iowa senatorial race between incumbent Democrat Tom Harkin and challenger Republican Rep. Tom Tauke is sounding like a schoolyard argument: "You started it." "No, you started it." "Did not." "Did so." "Did not." "Did so."
For most voters it all began, ironically, on Sept. 9 when Harkin, at the close of a televised debate with Tauke, said he had been running positive ads on television and radio, commended his opponent for doing the same, and called on Tauke to shake hands and agree not to attack each other by name in paid advertisements, and to run strictly on their own records. Harkin also asked Tauke to join him in asking their two party organizations to do likewise.
Tauke, taken aback when Harkin walked over to him on the set and extended his hand, shook it. But in his response, Tauke shot back:
"I certainly appreciate the sentiments. I just wish they were reflected in the actions of your campaign. And frankly I think it's a little hypocritical to stand here tonight and talk about positive campaigns when you just got finished sending out a mailing piece through the Democratic Party of Iowa to the women of the state that excoriated me inaccurately on a number of issues."
He accused Harkin of acting "sanctimoniously" and asked him "to sweep in front on your own door."
The mailer in question purported to present the relative positions of the two candidates on the issue of abortion that has sharply divided them, and the voters. It noted, among other points, that Tauke supported a bill in the House "that would outlaw all abortions, even in instances of rape, incest and when a woman's life is endangered." Harkin opposes all restrictive abortion legislation.
Tauke's campaign cried foul, and put out a counter-mailer that said while is he pro-life "he also adamantly defends access to abortion to save a mother's life, and urges aggressive medical treatment for rape and incest victims."
Tom Synhorst, Tauke's campaign manager, asked what "aggressive medical treatment" means in this context, was vague. In a debate with Harkin in August, Tauke used the same words but added: "But I don't think you will solve the violence of rape by having violence directed against a child who might be the product of that rape."
The Harkin campaign insists this is a switch on Tauke's long-held absolute opposition to all abortions. In any event, when Harkin immediately after the Sept. 9 handed Tauke a written agreement spelling out the clean-campaign proposals he had just offered, Tauke refused. If it had been a football game, the play-by-play announcer probably would have accused Harkin of blind-siding his opponent on the last play of the game.
Harkin's proposal met with what his press aide, Phil Roeder, acknowledges was "skepticism" from the Iowa press corps. In fact, some editorials were more than that, one of them calling Harkin's notion of neither candidate using the other's name "preposterous."
The Tauke campaign has also responded with a television ad that refers to this critical editorial comment and accuses Harkin of trying to avoid scrutiny of his record. It quotes him as having said "It's not how you vote, it's how you translate your vote," and argues that it's the actual vote that counts. Synhorst says Harkin brought up the clean-campaign matter in the debate as a theatrical diversion and "I think it's backfiring on him."
Tauke's response mailer charges that Harkin's abortion policy allows "experiments on babies somehow surviving abortion," a charge he also made in the August debate. At that time Harkin said "I don't know where he comes up with all that." But the Tauke campaign cites a 1982 Harkin vote in the House against an amendment that would have barred "experimentation . . . on a living human fetus or infant" except to insure its survival. Opponents at the time said regulations already were on the books barring such experimentation and the amendment was unnecessary.
Chances of a positive campaign on both sides now seem out the window. A poll for Iowa television stations just out shows Tauke slightly narrowing Harkin's lead, from 47 percent to 39 in July to 47-37, but the latest Iowa Poll by the Des Moines Register has Tauke trailing by only 44-41. With the inflammatory abortion issue so critically involved, neither candidate can risk pulling punches.