Parties define issues in Iowa

Topics that survive caucuses could shape presidential race

Health, taxes are focus

January 22, 2000|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

DES MOINES, Iowa -- The exhaustive campaigning leading up to Monday night's Iowa precinct caucuses has begun to define the central issues in each party -- the issues that are likely to survive the Iowa voting and dominate the New Hampshire primary Feb. 1 and beyond.

They are easier to spot on the Democratic side because only front-runner Vice President Al Gore and former Sen. Bill Bradley are competing. Gore has sought to make the Clinton-Gore prosperity and his experience the centerpieces in his appeal for voter support, while Bradley has put his ambitious proposal for health care reform and his leadership style on the front burner.

Among the six Republican candidates, front-runner Gov. George W. Bush of Texas has offered his executive experience and his electability in a party that yearns for a return to the White House.

Bush has also offered an ambitious tax cut as his party continues to seek returning a large chunk of the federal surplus to taxpayers. Polls, however, indicate that voters aren't as excited about the prospect as they were in the bygone days of the Newt Gingrich revolution.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who hasn't competed actively in the Iowa caucuses, took up the tax-cut argument in debates here, in New Hampshire and elsewhere. He has called Bush's plan to cut taxes by $480 billion over five years foolhardy and is offering a lower cut of $237 billion. He proposes earmarking other surplus funds, as President Clinton does, for reduction of the national debt and shoring up Social Security.

Family values issues

The other Republican aspirants -- publisher Steve Forbes, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, Christian activist Gary L. Bauer and former State Department official Alan L. Keyes -- have focused on the so-called family values issues, opposing abortion and decrying the state of morality, often with Clinton in their sights.

Forbes, as in his first bid for the GOP nomination in 1996, has continued to propose a flat tax; but unlike four years ago, he's not doing so as a johnny-one-note. After taking an equivocal position on abortion last time, Forbes has tried with a newly categorical anti-abortion posture to wrest support among the state's large religious right community from Bauer and Keyes. As a result, this key vote appears to be widely split.

The Democrats

In terms of issues that polls say are of most concern to most Iowa voters, the two Democrats have been better attuned with their focus on health-care reform. The Republicans, with the exception of debating the tax issue, have been largely engaged in a dialogue about abortion and morality that has produced few sharp distinctions.

Gore has probably scored his biggest points against Bradley here on another issue -- agriculture -- by focusing on Bradley votes in the Senate that the vice president characterizes as insensitive to Iowa farmers. But those hits may fade as the Democratic campaign moves to New Hampshire and beyond to urban states.

Rather, it has been health care and Bradley's leadership approach that have emerged from the Iowa caucuses as the central battleground between him and Gore. Apart from the specifics of the plan, Bradley is promoting his health proposal as one of only a few "big ideas" on which he says an effective president should focus.

"I would be a very different leader than Al Gore would be," Bradley told a senior citizens group the other day. "It boils down to being willing to tackle big solutions. An example is health care."

Bradley has proposed a sweeping reform of health care that would cost up to $65 billion a year out of the federal surplus and would replace Medicaid with what he calls a better plan. Gore, with more modest, incremental reforms, says Bradley's approach is "risky" and would particularly hurt elderly and low-income Americans.

Bradley responds that Gore is "too timid" and "proposes nibbling around the edges" in this and other proposals, saying the vice president's approach to governance would spread him too thin on too many minor undertakings. Of his health care reform proposals, Bradley acknowledges the prosperity of the Clinton-Gore years and has been telling audiences here: "The time to fix the roof is when the sun is shining."

Gore likes to cite a Bradley statement that he admired President Ronald Reagan's leadership style of focusing on a few major objectives and pursuing them. After noting that he knows Bradley was talking about style and not substance in the Reagan example, he characterizes the presidency as a job where its occupant must deal with a full plate of critical issues every day and is not "an academic exercise" that allows the luxury of focusing only on a few "big ideas."

The Republicans

Among the Republicans, the name of the game in Iowa has been trying to cut front-runner Bush down to size. Forbes, up close, and McCain, from a distance, have been going after his tax-cut proposal. And the most fervent abortion opponents have been questioning the Texan's commitment to end abortion.

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