WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Ask Tom Harkin a political question, and you're likely to get a personal answer about his brother Frank.
Asked his stand on the striker-replacement bill backed by organized labor and opposed by the White House, he tells how Frank had worked faithfully for 23 years at a Des Moines plant, only to be laid off by new owners who broke a strike by hiring ''permanent scabs.''
''Twenty-three years, and they threw him on the trash heap,'' he repeats -- and only then notes that his brother has been deaf since the age of 9. After being replaced, he says, the only job Frank was able to get was cleaning toilets nights at a shopping mall.
The 51-year-old senator from Iowa is on the verge of running for president. He is not afraid to pull out the emotional stops, call a scab a scab, admit being a populist, expose what lies inside him. He preaches that old-time Democratic religion.
In all that, he is strikingly different from the cautious Democrats of his generation who have considered and reconsidered running. Because of all that, he might have a real chance of winning the nomination.
But the early line is that he could never beat George Bush. Mr. Harkin maintains that nobody lately has run the kind of race he would run against Mr. Bush.
The last three Democratic candidates have gone after the minds of the voter. He wants to ''really go after the hearts and guts of the American people.''
He vows to say nothing bad about other Democrats, and concedes that Dick Gephardt's decision not to run helps him: Some possible supporters were holding back to see whether the better-known Midwesterner would try again.
At breakfast with reporters, he says that in 1988, Michael Dukakis lost ground against Mr. Bush when he did not respond quickly to GOP charges, but began a comeback when he said ''Wall Street or Main Street? I'm on your side.''
Mr. Harkin's tactical doctrine, he says, is ''never defend, always attack, and never fight on your own ground.'' Is he worried that the Republicans might ''Hortonize'' him as they did with their Willie Horton ads against Mr. Dukakis? ''No -- I'll hit them back right between the eyes. You wait and see.''
His aggressive politics made him the only Democratic senator ever elected to a second term in Iowa, and plays well among the party activists who dominate caucus and primary politics. His strong support of Israel has won backing from Jewish leaders. Labor unions applaud his efforts toward ''fair trade'' to protect American jobs, which he insists is not protectionism.
But he must reach beyond traditional liberals to appeal to crossover Democrats who have voted Republican at the top of the ticket. And conservatives are certain to go after him on national-security issues, where he has been a severe critic of support for the Nicaraguan contras and other U.S. intervention abroad. He led those who insisted that Mr. Bush's war against Saddam Hussein be put to a congressional vote.
What this country should have done, he says, was move forces to the Persian Gulf before Mr. Hussein invaded Kuwait, and tell him ''you take one step, and that's it.'' Instead, Mr. Harkin contends, this country had helped arm Iraq, done nothing when an Iraqi missile hit a U.S. ship earlier in the Gulf, and implied to Mr. Hussein that it would accept a move into Kuwait.
Before committing American forces, he says, he would have told Arab allies that the U.S. would come in only if Arabs ended their boycott against Israel and agreed to negotiate directly with that country. Asked if this would have been an or-else condition, he backs up to say it would have been ''on the table.''
Anyone attacking Mr. Bush for his Gulf intervention will be taking on a popular president on perhaps his most popular issue. But if any given issue is not promising, Mr. Harkin has others: ''The president can talk all he wants to about 'quotas,' '' he says, ''but he just did it himself, with [Clarence] Thomas'' for the Supreme Court.
The senator says abortion, or as he puts it, a woman's right to privacy, will be an issue: ''That's one of the veneers of the Republican Party that's starting to come off, and I want to scrape some more off.''
If eagerness decided the nomination, Mr. Harkin would start as the favorite. The only other likely contender speaking up as forcefully is Jay Rockefeller. If the two went head to head, voters would have to decide whether it's fighting fair to hit a fellow Democrat with the old line about Wall St. vs. Main St.