DES MOINES, Iowa — The political watchers call it "Iowa nice."
Be it the retired teacher or the worried office worker in Cedar Rapids, where state Sen. Wally Horn has hunted votes since the 1970s, voters promise to support him since he took the time to visit. Then they don't show up, or they choose someone else who also made a good impression. "They're almost too nice" to vent their true feelings with politicians, Horn said.
That's the stereotype. It has deep roots. But this year, it may not be true.
At a recent John Edwards rally in Des Moines, factory worker John R. Campbell Jr. wasn't convinced that nice would cut it this election cycle — in Iowa or elsewhere — at least not for Democrats.
"The manufacturing base here is gone," said Campbell, 51, a lifelong Des Moines resident who works at the Firestone rubber plant. "The Maytag plant (in Newton) shut down this year after being there 100 years. . . . In China, they're starting to build tires as we do at Firestone. But some of the plants there still use benzene, a known carcinogen, which makes the product cheaper. But it gives the workers cancer.
"Everywhere you see these CEOs' salaries go up because they've done a bunch of layoffs and shifted jobs overseas. Why are they making so much more than the workers?"
Class conflict, not niceness, is the centerpiece of the Edwards campaign. The former senator from North Carolina has made nearly 50 trips to the Hawkeye state since his surprise second-place showing in the caucuses four years ago. With much backing from organized labor, he speaks now with clenched-jaw resolve, in contrast to the fresh-faced idealism of his 2004 effort.
In a state where land values and crop prices are high but family farms are disappearing — a half-million Iowans farmed in the 1970s but fewer than 170,000 do today — a swelling share of its 3 million residents answer to big corporations or are caught between the tax pressures and soaring health-care costs that plague small business. In all 99 counties, and in the suddenly robust entertainment districts of downtown Des Moines, "change" is the clarion call of Edwards and fellow Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Not "nice."
Change is sweeping Iowa.
Despite its troubles, manufacturing remains the state's largest economic sector, said Shawn Rolland of the Iowa Department of Economic Development. "But it is changing from an old-economy kind of manufacturing to a new economy of advanced manufacturing, relying on high technology, greater innovation and a skilled work force."
Case in point: The closing of the Maytag factory, leaving 1,800 people jobless, spurred Rhode Island-based TPI Composites Inc. to build a state-of-the-art wind-turbine plant in Newton and hire 500 of those available workers.
"We're calling Iowa the renewable energy capital of the nation," Rolland said. "We're first in ethanol production, second in bio-diesel production and third in wind-energy development."
Those new growth industries affect politicking in Iowa, too.
Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a longtime opponent of federal ethanol subsides, has yet to gain traction in the state. However, Clinton, a New York senator, has reversed her previous stance against government support for ethanol development and other subsidies that benefit corn producers. She's dutifully donned goggles in the research labs at Johnston, Iowa-based Pioneer High-Bred, as have several other candidates.
Some things don't change in Iowa, though.
Among Republicans, national security and family values still score across the state, experts said.
In 1988, televangelist Pat Robertson was the first to tap Iowa's rich vein of church communities on his way to notching a second-place caucus showing, seen today as a milestone in the social-conservative political movement.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, is counting on the support of evangelical Christians to deliver a victory over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Mormon, who's spent millions in the state.
Romney and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson have persistently attacked Huckabee's support for education aid to families of undocumented workers while he was Arkansas' governor. They're tapping resentment of change there.
The rhetoric over illegal immigration triggers a mixed response in the mostly red counties of western Iowa. Economically, the region has rebounded from the devastating farm crisis of the 1980s only to face worker shortages, an increasing aged population and an ongoing "brain drain" of young, educated taxpayers. Meatpackers rely on the immigrant population to fill voids in the homegrown job market.
"We don't need Willie Nelson anymore to sing songs and raise dollars for our farmers," said Carroll, Iowa, journalist Douglas Burns, 38, who contributes to IowaIndependent.com, a political Web site. "But on the flip side, it's a big challenge to find young workers for the existing companies here, never mind the new ones."
Sometimes character trumps change.
Evenly divided among Democrats, Republicans and independents, Iowans have appeared content for two decades to re-elect to the U.S. Senate one of its most liberal Democrats in Tom Harkin and an old-school fiscal conservative in Republican Charles Grassley. Some observers and voters alike say that a candidate's Middle American courtesy, candor and populist persona can even trump party labels.
One crossover candidate to watch is Republican Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who's drawing only single-digit support for his calls to shrink the federal government drastically — including its role in Iraq and military bases overseas — but it's very fervent support.
Iowa's political character long has been marked by a pacifist streak, dating to the 1972 caucuses' ascension of South Dakota Sen. George McGovern as a contender for the Democratic nomination.
And as 2004 showed, Iowa has a knack for surprise.
"What people outside of the state don't understand is that Ron Paul's followers are rabid, and that's important when it comes to caucusing," said John Olsen, who runs a political memorabilia shop in West Des Moines.
"If there's bad weather, watch out! Those voters will drive nails into their shoes so they can walk on ice to get to the caucuses."
(Montgomery reports for The Kansas City Star.)