Harkin endorsement is key in Iowa, not yet locked up

Democratic U.S. senator has power to swing votes in crucial state caucuses

January 08, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

CUMMING, Iowa - The most sought-after Democratic caucus-goer in Iowa is agonizing in this hamlet of 150, torn over whether to make what could be the most important endorsement in the state's still shifting presidential contest.

"As we sit here right now, I honestly don't know what I'm going to do," said Sen. Tom Harkin, whose support, in Iowa at least, has the potential to vastly overshadow endorsements by Al Gore, Bill Bradley or just about anyone else.

"I am being pulled in a couple of different ways. I may not endorse anyone. I may just let it all play out."

But that outcome could be personally unsatisfying for Harkin, who has played caucus powerbroker in the past and won the voting in his own unsuccessful presidential bid in 1992. After all, what is the point of having a nationally significant political event in his home state if he can't flex his substantial muscle?

"Tom, being Tom, loves to campaign, and he wants to do whatever he can to see a Democrat in the White House," said Lorraine Voles, a former adviser who remains close to the senator. "I think he starts looking at the options out there."

It is a tricky business for Harkin, who has political allies sprinkled throughout the campaigns of the top contenders, longtime relationships with several of the candidates and a burning desire to make certain he is central to the political life of his state. His deliberations are front-page news in Des Moines, the campaigns have been calling, and the days are slipping by toward the Jan. 19 caucuses.

As he contemplates what to do, he can be found in the small, refurbished house he was born in here on the rural outskirts of Des Moines. From his comfortable living room, he can look out at the snow-covered corn fields, spin tales about local bootleg rye whiskey, show off his favorite shotguns and take aim at his next move.

The thinking is that if Harkin were to make a public choice, it would most likely be Howard Dean, whose current take-no-prisoners brand of Democratic politics resembles Harkin's own populist style. Harkin acknowledges being "intrigued" by the former Vermont governor.

"It has been impressive what he has done," said Harkin, who invoked a late friend and fellow liberal in the Senate. "Paul Wellstone and I always knew that if we continue to compete with the Republicans for the same shrinking pool of voters, we will lose. We have to expand that pool, and Dean is doing that."

Dean, like any of the caucus competitors, would be thrilled with a Harkin stamp of approval, his campaign manager said. "Its pretty clear in Iowa that every candidate would love to have Senator Harkin's endorsement," said Joe Trippi.

An endorsement of Dean would be a blow to the campaign of Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, who is relying on support from the same labor unions that are close to Harkin. Advisers to Gephardt concede it would not be good news but say that such a move at this late stage would probably limit the influence of Harkin's extensive organizational network.

For the other campaigns, their best hope might be that Harkin simply stays out of it. Sometimes, it is easy to forget that Harkin himself is not in the race - most of the candidates slip a flattering reference to the lawmaker or his policies into their remarks at rallies, hoping to strike a bond with Iowans while currying favor with Harkin.

There is no doubt that his endorsement would be a significant development and could swing some voters.

"Harkin is the key state Democrat here," said Dennis Goldford, a professor at Drake University in Des Moines. "He does carry some weight."

His backing of Gore was credited with helping the vice president defeat Bradley in the 2000 caucuses. And Harkin sought early to carve out a role in the 2004 caucuses as host of a series of 10 "Hear it from the Heartland" candidate forums and a steak fry that were treated as don't-miss events by the contenders last year.

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