Iowa's Harkin, 'prairie populist,' joins the race Democratic senator, 51, is party's 3rd candidate

September 16, 1991|By Paul West | Paul West,Sun Staff Correspondent

WINTERSET, Iowa -- Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, an unabashed liberal with a gut-fighting campaign style, added his name yesterday to the rapidly expanding list of Democratic presidential candidates.

The 51-year-old "prairie populist" called on Americans to "take the government back from the special interests and the privileged few and make it work for us for a change."

Mr. Harkin is the third declared contender in a field that is expected to double in size in coming weeks. His entry followed by two days that of Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder.

Four others, Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, former California Gov. Jerry Brown and Oklahoma Representative David McCurdy, are also considering joining a race that had only one candidate until last week, former Sen. Paul E. Tsongas of Massachusetts.

For his announcement site, Mr. Harkin chose a friend's 800-acre corn and cattle farm not far from Cumming, Iowa, the tiny (population 151) community where he was born, the youngest of six children.

Before a rollicking crowd of some 2,000 supporters, many of them perched atop benches and hay bales on the grassy hillside, Mr. Harkin repeated his call for a sweeping reordering of national priorities, a "new economic agenda" that would divert billions from overseas military spending into a massive new public works program at home.

Dressed casually in a Western-style shirt and cowboy boots and speaking with few notes, Mr. Harkin used his own rise to power, an evolution that relied on government assistance at crucial stages, to illustrate his vision of expanded opportunities for other Americans.

"This son of a coal miner and an immigrant mother aspires to the highest office in the land," he said. "Now that's the American dream."

He cast himself as the political descendant of Democratic President Harry S. Truman, whose 1948 victory remains one of history's great electoral upsets. With a broad grin, Mr. Harkin displayed a royal blue T-shirt bearing the campaign slogan "Give 'Em Hell, Harkin" as the crowd whooped gleefully.

The senator, whose political motto is "Never defend, always attack," issued a vintage partisan assault on President Bush, whose aides say they would love to have Mr. Harkin as an opponent next year.

"I'm here today to tell you that George Herbert Walker Bush has feet of clay, and I'm going to take a hammer to them," said Mr. Harkin, harshly criticizing the incumbent's record on crime, education, the economy and health care. One of the most dovish Democrats in Washington, he made no mention of foreign policy in his 30-minute speech.

The Harkin campaign's class-warfare strategy is aimed squarely at middle-income voters who have drifted into the Republican camp over the past two decades. But as he enters the race, the Iowan is regarded by analysts as a far better bet to win the nomination than a general election because of a combination of the president's popularity and the belief that Mr. Harkin's old-fashioned liberalism is out of tune with a conservative electorate.

But his potential advantages in the Democratic contest are considerable.

Mr. Harkin starts as the only traditional liberal in the current field. If other, better-known, liberals like Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York stay on the sidelines, he could emerge as an early favorite for the nomination.

A leading party fund-raiser on hand for the announcement, Nathan Landow, the Maryland Democratic Party chairman, called Harkin "one of the few who could ignite a spark again" among demoralized Democratic activists. Mr. Landow, a leading backer of Sen. Albert Gore's 1988 presidential campaign, also predicted that Mr. Harkin would raise "a couple million bucks" by year's end, a figure that could propel him toward the front of the field in that crucial department.

No stranger to uphill battles, he won election to Congress in a Republican district in the post-Watergate election of 1974. Last year, he became the first Democratic senator in Iowa history to win re-election, waging an aggressive, well-financed campaign against a popular young Republican congressman, Tom Tauke.

While other, more risk-averse Democrats are ducking a race against Mr. Bush in 1992, Mr. Harkin tickles the party faithful with his audacity.

"Old George, he's never met anybody like me," he likes to say. "We're going to have some fun."


Thomas Richard Harkin


Nov. 19, 1939, Cumming, Iowa, to Patrick and Frances H. Harkin.

GREW UP In rural Iowa and Wyoming. Father was a coal miner. Attended public and parochial schools, Iowa State University (B.S., 1962), Catholic University of America law school (LL.B., 1972).


Married Ruth Raduenz in 1968. Two daughters, Amy, 15, and Jenny, 10. Wife is attorney and lobbyist with Washington law firm founded by U.S. Ambassador to Soviet Union Robert Strauss. Couple owns vacation house in the Bahamas. He drives a vintage 1977 Corvette.

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