Tom Harkin: working with working men and women On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

September 13, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

Des Moines -- WHEN SEN. Tom Harkin of Iowa embarks on his first trip as a declared presidential candidate this week, he will employ a campaign tool that has worked for him on lesser political battlegrounds but one that is particularly geared to his 1992 strategy as the defender of the working man.

Immediately after his declaration of candidacy Sunday at a steak PTC fry in his hometown of Winterset, about 40 miles southwest of here, Harkin will go to New Hampshire, where he will conduct a "work day" Monday at a Manchester factory making toaster parts. That is, he will doff his coat and pitch in for a full shift alongside the working stiffs he hopes will be the backbone of his presidential bid.

Harkin on Wednesday will repeat the exercise at a construction site in Baltimore, and on Friday in Los Angeles, he will share the labors of men and women building a new rapid transit line.

The notion behind the work days is simple: Show Joe and Jane Lunchbucket that the candidate knows from experience what he or she goes through, and cares.

It is a device Harkin first used in his successful bid for a House seat from Iowa in 1974, when he began his climb that has now made him the only Iowa Democrat ever reelected to the Senate, and a presidential aspirant.

According to Bob Squier, the Washington consultant who ran Harkin's House and Senate media campaigns, the work-day idea originated with an Iowa farmer who suggested to Harkin that he spend some time doing farm chores to get close to the problems of his would-be constituents.

Harkin took the idea and ran with it, and Squier later passed it on to gubernatorial candidate Bob Graham in Florida, who used it successfully in his campaign and later in his re-election and then election to the U.S. Senate. Graham labored in a range of jobs from hotel bellhop to chicken-plucker in winning the governorship in 1978 and hasn't stopped using the technique since.

The same is true of Harkin. According to Tim Raftis, who ran his 1990 Senate re-election campaign and has been named his presidential campaign manager, Harkin has completed 101 work days over his political career. He plans to rack up many more in the months ahead, Raftis says, in the first use of the device at the presidential-campaign level. Squier and his partner, Carter Eskew, are leading prospects to handle the campaign's media strategy.

Candidates have always sought to woo blue-collar workers, by meeting them outside their plants at shift changes and even on )) the assembly line. But most often they have stayed only long enough to get their pictures taken wearing a hard hat or pressing the flesh with the overalls set, and then moving on.

The work day is ideal for Harkin because he has cast himself as the throwback Democrat who does not shy away from political class warfare, telling blue-collar audiences that they have been taken to the cleaners in the Reagan-Bush years while the rich have gotten richer. His call for the wealthiest Americans to pay higher taxes to take the heat off the middle class plays particularly well, Raftis insists, among the so-called Reagan Democrats who must be brought back to the Democratic fold in 1992.

Harkin and Graham both have demonstrated in their earlier campaigns that it's not necessary to conduct work days all the time, but they do have to be done often enough to show that they are more than a passing gimmick. Harkin already has tried to establish himself as the dirty-fingernail, shot-and-a-beer candidate with earthy language seldom heard on the presidential campaign level, and getting on the assembly line frequently won't clash with that image.

Other candidates in recent years have tried to forge a special link with the working man and woman by working the populist rhetoric and style. In some ways, Harkin is picking up where former Sen. Fred Harris of Oklahoma left off in his two failed bids for the 1972 and 1976 presidential nominations, sprinkling barnyard witticisms and language across the political landscape.

The narrowness of Harris' constituency in the end did him in, and is an obvious obstacle for Harkin to overcome. But the work-day approach could have a positive impact on voters beyond the assembly line if Harkin can use it to demonstrate that he is a different kind of candidate in this era of blow-dried carbon copies.

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