AMANA, Iowa -- Thousands of farmers who have been plodding through the mud at the nation's largest outdoor agricultural trade show this week are suddenly finding themselves on a political battleground.
Bob Dole, once so popular in Iowa that he was sometimes called "the third senator," is trailing so far behind President Clinton in the polls here that the Republican presidential nominee has had to wage a furious fight for the state's meager prize of seven electoral votes.
"The electoral votes in this state could well decide who wins the election, and I'm not joking," Dole told a crowd of several hundred supporters yesterday at the Farm Progress Show here.
"This is the way it works. I've looked at the electoral map, and I've looked and I've looked and I've looked. It could come down to Iowa."
True, Iowa hasn't supported a Republican for president since 1984.
But even in an uphill contest, Dole should be finding more comfort here. He's practically a home boy.
Dole grew up on the Kansas prairie one state to the west, and he has been campaigning in Iowa for president or vice president since 1976; in 1988, he won the caucuses, trouncing George Bush.
Between elections, Dole slips frequently into the state to attend VIP events and pay his respects at funerals.
As a Senate majority leader from Kansas, he kept such a watchful eye out for causes important to Iowans that he almost seemed a member of the state's delegation as well.
"He's always looked out for us on agricultural issues," said Nadine Kading of Adair, who described herself as a farmer's wife. "All the farmers I know are voting for him."
But other Iowans are clearly not responding to the Dole message.
The nominee was greeted here yesterday by a Des Moines Register statewide poll that put him 23 percentage points behind Clinton. His support has barely budged since the first Register poll in April.
"I think too many people have the mute button on," said JudyBailey, a farmer and real estate saleswoman. A Dole supporter, she said she fears that voters have simply tuned out the political noise.
The Register poll seems to confirm that view. Nearly all supporters of both candidates say their minds are made up. Only 6 percent said they were undecided.
Even so, Iowa is feeling a rush of attention that almost reminds locals of the grip-and-grin treatment they receive every four years for their presidential caucuses, the first contest in the nation.
Dole's appearance here -- after the country crooning of a band that sang "There's no need to fear, Underdog is here" -- was his second in Iowa in three weeks.
Vice President Al Gore attended the farm show Tuesday. Clinton came to Iowa earlier this month. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Elizabeth Dole have visited recently.
Both campaigns have made Iowa a target of their most biting TV ads, including a new spot by Dole that shows Clinton joking on MTV in 1992 about his attempts to smoke marijuana.
'Microcosm of America'
"I think they see Iowa as a microcosm of America," said Bill Diemer, who serves on the Republican Central Committee in Blackhawk County. "They think if they can make it here, they can make it anywhere."
That seems to be the view of both campaigns, which see in Iowa's pattern of splitting tickets and in the growing chasm between rural and urban voters a symbolic test of national strength.
Winning Iowa is particularly crucial to Dole's strategy now that Clinton seems to have locked up many of the big states, such as California.
Forbes' ads hurt him
Dole's aides and some party officials blame the millions of dollars in negative television ads that were run against Dole by Steve Forbes before the Republican caucuses this year.
Those ads, some of which depicted Dole as a business-as-usual Washington pol who voted to increase pensions for members of Congress, dropped Dole's approval ratings in Iowa from 80 percent to 50 percent almost overnight, said Stephen W. Roberts, Republican national committeeman for Iowa.
The pounding Dole took from fellow Republicans while fighting for the nomination has clearly hurt him against Clinton, who claimed his party's nomination without a challenge.
State polls around the nation show that the Republican base is deeply eroded in what should be bastions of Dole strength.
Even in Arizona
In Arizona, for example, where Dole was also bruised in a primary battle with Forbes, the most favorable polls put his contest with Clinton at a dead heat. Arizona has not backed a Democrat for president since Harry S. Truman in 1948.
The Clinton campaign says the Forbes ads wounded Dole because they trained a spotlight on his 35-year tenure in Washington.
"Bob Dole never mentions he was in the Senate anymore," said Joe Lockhart, Clinton's campaign spokesman. "He seems to have adopted the view that the last three decades are best forgotten."
But Dole's troubles may be broader than the damage he suffered in the primary fight, said Dennis J. Goldford, a political scientist at Iowa's Drake University.
"I think Iowa mirrors Dole's national problem," Goldford said. "He is a transitional figure -- a pre-Reagan Republican in a post-Reagan world" who is unable to unite and excite his own party.
What's more, according to Goldford and others, Dole is up against an incumbent Democratic president who is presiding over a healthy peacetime economy.
"I think we're in a peaceful period; people just aren't agitating over things," said Larry Mulbrook, a 60-year-old farmer who is rooting for Dole. "We're hoping he's a winner, but fearing he's got a long walk up."
Pub Date: 9/26/96