Well-trod path to grass roots

Iowa caucuses have candidates courting Fort Dodge voters

January 20, 2000|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

FORT DODGE, Iowa -- When Harrison Ford was spotted from afar in sunglasses, keeping to himself at the airport here, a story about the sighting landed on the front page of the local paper. But when presidential candidates swing through town, nearly begging for down-home attention, the newspaper imposes a policy: no automatic front-page articles unless something unusual happens.

The residents of Fort Dodge are a little nonchalant about presidential candidates, having, after all, eaten chili with them, served them pancakes, heard their 4-H hall speeches and otherwise measured them from the earliest days of this campaign. Fort Dodge, a gritty retail center at the crossing of two interstates and surrounded on all sides by cornfields, is courted more heavily than an Iowa homecoming queen.

"I keep wondering, when do I get to meet Gary Bauer's dog?" said Ed Plansky, a foreman at a container factory, who was asked to attend gatherings with nearly every member of the Republican candidate's family.

Yet despite the amused detachment of many here, it was clear from dozens of interviews this week that a quiet minority appears to care intensely about the presidential race. At a Steve Forbes speech, for example, several Iowans said they planned to vote Monday in their caucuses for the first time.

"Before, I didn't think there was that much of a contest," said Wayne Blunk, a 63-year-old retired farmer, as Forbes staffers piped "Stars and Stripes Forever" into the auditorium at the county fairgrounds Tuesday. He and his wife, both lifelong residents of Fort Dodge, made their first-ever trek to see a candidate.

"I guess I felt like this time it would make a difference," Blunk said. "We've got to put integrity back in the White House."

The candidates who visit Fort Dodge hope to seize on such voters, despite polls revealing a national electorate anchored in indifference.

Over again, the presidential hopefuls return to this northwest Webster County city, hoping to at least make a long-term impression, if not a commitment for a caucus vote. Vice President Al Gore is scheduled to show up for his fourth visit tomorrow, after Forbes' fourth appearance Tuesday night. Former Sen. Bill Bradley has stopped by a couple of times, and Texas Gov. George W. Bush stumped here on a 103-degree summer day. Bauer made a repeat visit last week to shake hands at a high school basketball game, and his wife returned for a pancake breakfast.

Kennedy and Nixon

Residents still remember John F. Kennedy's parade down Central Avenue and Richard M. Nixon's daughter Tricia shaking hands at the Fourth of July celebration. In the last election, when Republican Sen. Phil Gramm ran for president, he brought Charlton Heston to town -- a bigger draw, he joked at the time, than he could ever hope to be.

For candidates, the city is a natural. With 75 percent of Iowa voters living in the eastern part of the state, Fort Dodge, with a population of about 26,000, is one of the larger western outposts, a concentrated mix of farmers and commercial workers.

For Forbes, who is hoping to save his campaign by drawing out conservatives in rural areas, Tuesday's stop in Fort Dodge was a must. Nearly 300 people downed 15 gallons of chili, courtesy of Forbes, and accepted souvenir T-shirts at the door.

"Remember," Forbes implored, "don't let others tell you what to do. You're here to make real things happen!"

En route to his bus, declaring himself "pumped" by supporters who made him feel "ready to stay up all night," Forbes said his repeat visits to Fort Dodge were winning him votes.

"It's my business background," he said. "If you've got a good opportunity, pursue it."

Aging industrial center

Fort Dodge is ripe for an inspirational message. An aging industrial center hard hit by the loss of its Hormel pork factory two decades ago, the city is trying to make do with a commercial strip and Friskies plant on the edge of town.

It has seen better days -- residents complain that the place sometimes smells like cat food -- and it is struggling to capture the national prosperity of the past decade. Chain-smoking farmers file into the Community Tavern at lunch, have a beer and worry about rock-bottom hog prices.

But the city -- where a John Wayne impersonator returns every year for the frontier festival -- prides itself on its true grit. Folks talk about their independent spirit -- not just in their lives on the prairie, but in their national politics.

Residents consider themselves immune to Washington spin and blind party loyalties. Not even the mayor's secretary seems to know her boss' party affiliation.

Democrats hold edge

Democrats hold a slight edge in town, but the newspaper boasts a conservative editorial page, and the region's Republican farmers keep GOP candidates coming back. Independents make up a third of registered voters in the city.

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