HARLAN, Iowa — The air was often perfumed with cow manure. The crowd sat on bales of hay in a barn. The most popular bumper sticker was “Hogs for Edwards.” And John Edwards was introduced at each stop this week by “Cooter” from the old “Dukes of Hazzard” TV show.
Edwards is courting the rural vote.
While all the Democratic candidates for president are paying more attention to the problems of rural America this year, none has wooed the countryside more avidly than Edwards, the former North Carolina senator and 2004 Democratic vice presidential candidate.
This week Edwards donned jeans and a zip-up fleece and hit the back roads of Iowa to stump for his program for rural America, which includes a range of proposals from increased Internet access to tougher anti-trust regulation of big corporate farming operations.
But Edwards is pushing more than his policy agenda. He's also selling his life story — the product of the small mill towns in the South, which he said allows him to connect with the problems of closed plants, struggling farms and towns left behind by the new economy.
“We need a president who actually cares about what happens in small towns,” Edwards said Tuesday in Greenfield, a small farming community where he spoke to about 120 people in a community center. “I worry sometimes that these presidential candidates think of small towns and rural areas as places you fly over when you are going from New York to Los Angeles. But for me, it’s where I am from.”
The multimillionaire lawyer consistently drew sizable crowds this week in barns, cattle auctions, firehouses, community centers and schools. Some were Edwards loyalists; other voters were still shopping.
“He understands rural,” said Denise O’Brien, 58, a farmer from Atlantic, Iowa, who's supporting Edwards. “He comes from our culture. He comes from a poor, rural family that worked its way up to the middle class. That makes him more open to the rural issues that confront us.”
Edwards is locked in a tight battle in Iowa with New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, although Edwards has lost ground in polls since Clinton began a heavy television campaign in Iowa. Success in the Iowa caucuses is considered crucial to Edwards’ viability as a presidential candidate; as a result, he's put a lot of his campaign effort and resources into the state.
National political campaigns have largely ignored rural voters in recent years — Republicans have take them for granted and Democrats have written them off. Republicans have been aided by the cultural issues summed up in the slogan, “guns, God and gays.”
But there are indications that rural America is becoming more competitive, with Democrats aided by disillusionment over the war in Iraq and the continued decline of rural America. During last year’s midterm congressional elections, the rural vote split 51 percent Republican and 48 percent Democrat, according to Democratic pollster Anna Greenburg.
“I think Edwards, Clinton and Obama are definitely talking more about rural issues, probably Edwards more than the rest,” said Dee Davis, the president of the nonpartisan Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg, Ky.
Rural voters are likely to play a disproportionate role in the early political season.
There are large numbers of rural Democratic voters in three of the first four states with primaries or caucuses: roughly 40 percent each in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Several of the super-primary-day states on Feb. 5, including Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma, also have sizable rural populations.
Campaigning in farm country presents challenges not often seen in suburbia. In Dunlap, Iowa, Edwards’ campaign van was temporarily blocked in by a cattle truck. Near the Roseman family farm in Harlan, the Edwards convoy had to turn around and take another route when a muddy, unpaved road appeared impassable.
Then there are the farm dogs. When a friendly dog began visiting with people in the front row of bales in a barn in Harlan, a grinning Edwards interrupted his speech and joked that the dog seemed to be getting more than attention he was. Ben Jones, the former Democratic congressman and actor who played Cooter, finally called the dog over to the side.
Interviews with voters suggest that Edwards is benefiting in rural areas from skepticism about Clinton’s electability.
Deb Stalter, a 57-year-old schoolteacher from Stewart, is supporting Edwards in part because she doesn't think Clinton can win.
“In redneck Iowa,” Stalter said, “we need someone we can elect.”
The Edwards campaign also has been pointing out that there were problems in rural America when Bill Clinton was president and has been portraying Hillary Clinton as a friend of big agriculture.
“Hillary Clinton and the Clintons just flat put the screws to rural America, including NAFTA,” Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, a senior Edwards adviser, said in an interview. “Hillary likes to talk about the jobs they created. The truth of the matter, here in Iowa, there were twice as many jobs lost as there were gained.”
There's a populist element to Edwards' campaign that several Iowans liken to their own senator, Tom Harkin. Edwards rails against big corporate farm interests, which he says are hurting the small farmer.
“It seems like America has forgotten about the family farmer,” Edwards said Wednesday in Rock Rapids. “What is happening is these big corporate farming operations are running the farmers out of business.”
Bob Sullivan, an 84-year-old farmer from Woodbine, said Edwards talks his language.
“All the things that made America great are disappearing,” Sullivan said. “The corporations are taking over America.”
Edwards had strong appeal in the rural Midwest during his 2004 presidential run. That's an important reason why he finished second to John Kerry in the Iowa caucuses last time and why Kerry dispatched him to many small rural towns during the general election.
But Edwards’ populist image as the champion of the small man may have been tarnished by controversies involving his $400 haircut, his sprawling new home and his involvement in hedge funds.
“That $400 haircut still sticks in my craw,” said Kenneth Buck, a 74-year-old owner of a road construction company in Denison. “He’s smarter than that. At least I thought he was.”
(Christensen reports for The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C.)