Here in northwestern Iowa, where you can drive for miles and pass more cows and pigs than people, live 7,133 well-scattered voters with a rare collective talent.
When it comes to electing presidents, Iowans from Palo Alto County clearly know how to pick a winner.
They've been doing it with precision -- if not always a large majority -- since 1896, when they helped William McKinley to the White House.
No one claims to know quite how the county built this reputation for political perspicacity. But everyone here, right down to the children, is aware and proud of it.
If pressed for a reason, most put it down to voter independence and a vigorous effort to keep well informed. Here in Emmetsburg, the county seat, there is almost always a coffee house discussion under way at the drug store, Dutch's diner, or Opal's, depending on the hour -- and politics is a major topic.
"People here are well educated, and I think they really take their politics seriously," comments Jane Whitmore, editor of the Democrat, Emmetsburg's semi-weekly newspaper. (She was interviewed prior to the New Hampshire primary, s were others here.)
Certainly the political mix here, which may qualify as typical America, is another key factor. There are five registered Democrats for every three Republicans. Yet, almost half of all Palo alto County voters are independents. And many of those allied with a party say they rarely vote a straight ticket and are increasingly apt to vote the man rather than the party.
"There isn't such thing as blind loyalty here," affirms Boyd Griffith, an Emmetsburg lawyer who is county Democratic Party vice-chairman. "These are pretty independent people -- they really listen to and weigh what candidates say."
Old-fashioned moral virtues and the work ethic are held in high regard by these Iowa voters. In Palo Alto County you are as likely to hear a lashing out against the "evils" of big spending in Washington, "easy" welfare, and socialized medicine from a Democrat as from a Republican.
So far this year Palo Alto voters, who took part in record numbers in the county's packed January precinct caucuses, have mirrored the preferences of Iowa voters at large. County Democrats voted to send twice as many Carter as Kennedy delegates to district and state conventions.
Republicans, who are not nearly as well organized in the county and met en masse in one Emmetsburg bank for their caucus, gave a strong edge to George Bush but reserved close to one-third of their vote for Ronald Reagan. About 10 percent of the votes in the Republican straw poll went to Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. John B. Connally drew only 3 percent of the total, or about one-third of the support that went to Illinois Rep. Philip M. Crane.
But when you talk with farmers around the county and with party leaders and businessmen here in Emmetsburg, you realize there is a rich variety of sentiment behind those votes and that political preferences could easily change between now and November.
The Iowa caucus was held soon after the Soviet grain embargo was announced. Although the backlash from angry farmers was not so strong as expected -- "You can't feed the hand that stabs you in the back," explains one supporter -- more farmers could swing behind President Carter as time eases the shock. Similarly, once domestic issues such as inflation and energy again loon large, the President may come in for more of the blame than he currently is getting.
Although Iowa itself went for Republican Gerald Ford in 1976, Palo Alto County voters supported Jimmy Carter by a fairly substantial margin of 559 votes.
Will they do so again? At the moment, Carter support here appears widespread , but not very enthusiastic. Almost everyone you talk with has a pet gripe or two about some part of the Carter performance over the last four years. Stop in on a morning discussion among farmers at the co-op grain elevator in Mallard, for instance, and you'll be reminded that one reason many originally voted for Mr. Carter was that he called himself a fellow farmer. They thought that meant he had their interests at heart.
"He sure forgot us pretty fast," complains grain farmer Lyle Douglas. "He's helped the oil companies and Chrysler -- but not agriculture. We're supposed to be willing to make a sacrifice, but how are we to feel when we see oil profits going up 600 to 700 percent? Something's wrong there."
Yet, among some voters Mr. Carter, as the incumbent and a known commodity, has a certain comfortable edge over the others. Many voters here say they do not really think he's doing a bad job and that they're not sure who among those interested in replacing him is really equipped to do much better.
Ayershire grain elevator manager Bob Peterson's comment is typical: "I was for Carter last time and I'm pretty well for him this time. I think he's done about as well as he could."
Yet some of the President's support admittedly is more anti-Kennedy than pro-Carter. While Senator Kennedy does have some staunch supporters here and draws high marks from both Republicans and Democrats in the country on his choice of advisers, many voters say the college cheating and Chappaquiddick incidents leave them wondering if the candidate has really left such days of irresponsibility behind.
On the Republican side, support for George Bush appears fairly broad and strong. Most cite his experience in foreign policy and government office as a strong plus. But many concede that he remains something of a "mystery man" to them. "I don't think a lot of people here feel they know him yet," one undecided Republican says.
Ronald Reagan still has a loyal following here. But both his age and the fact that he did not come to Iowa to debate or campaign before the caucuses are cited as reasons why Reagan support here has not grown farther than it has.
At least some of Mr. Carter's current support appears directly related to the fact that he placed a number of strategic phone calls to past delegates before the caucus vote.
Democratic county chairman John D. Brown, a young Emmetsburg lawyer who supported Mr. carter in 1976, concedes he was "undecided" as recently as a few weeks before the recent caucus. But that was before he received a White House phone call and a later request from the Carter campaign headquarters that he host a party for Vice-President Walter Mondale. He now is a committed Carter delegate.
"I couldn't tell my kids that the President of the United States called and that I wouldn't vote for him, " he explains.
The President's handling of the Afghan and Iranian situations has also shored up his support here.
As Mike Flannegan, another Carter delegate, explains his allegiance in an endorsement editorial in his semi-monthly Palo Alto County Gazette: The President has "stood up to the thing people fear most -- communist aggression -- without declaring war or another Vietnam."
Mr. Flannegan, who in addition to founding his newspaper a little over a year ago operates a floral shop and a tree service, insists that Mr. Carter has not been a "bad" President and that he will surely be more of a leader next time around if he receives a stronger voter mandate.
Some voters say they will stand behind President Carter largely because he is really just "getting started" and deserves another four years to show what he can do.
"I think he was kind of naive when he first got in as to the way things worked," observes Robert E. Brennan, county supervisor and volunteer fireman who is in the construction business.
But Mr. Carter's personal qualities -- his apparent honesty, devotion to his family, and trust in God -- are frequently cited as reasons for voter support.
"He has a wonderful character," Anna Molison insists. She is a former Republican but voted for Mr. Carter last time and says she will again: "I think he tells the truth, and these days that means a lot."
However, some former Carter supporters insist they will never give him a second vote.
Myrtle Claudeshaffer, who is married to a farmer and has an 18-year-old son, has turned against the President because of his call for selective service registration and the way, as she sees it, he allows the oil companies to prosper at the farmers' expense. "I'd like to ask Carter personally if the oil companies are going to set the tables if the farmers give up," she says.
For farmer Lyle Douglas the decisive turnoff was not the fact of the grain embargo (although he thinks it hurts the American farmer and not the Soviet Union) but the fact that the President reversed an earlier pledge never to use food as a weapon. "He lied -- and I'd never vote for him again," Mr. Douglas declares.
But it is not at all clear where the votes of such disenchanted Carter supporters will go. Several admit they like Senator Kennedy even less and that, in the end, they might support the President as the "lesser of two evils."
Senator Kennedy probably has no more enthusiastic supporter in all of Palo Alto County than Emmetsburg kindergarten teacher Peggy Wigen. During a lunch break while her students are out of the classroom, she perches on one of the junior-sized tables and explains what it is that makes her a Kennedy fan and delegate:
"I think we need a candidate for all people. He's voted for all kinds of medicine, education, and social programs and by his record has proven himself to be for the little man . . . . I'll go as far as I can a Kennedy delegate."
Miss Wigen, whom lawyer John Brown calls the "hardest-working Democrat in the county," insists there are more Kennedy supporters just like her than recent caucus results suggest.She is challenging the count on those results and attributes the lean toward Mr. Carter to heavy and "seductive" campaigning by Carter forces. She says the pressure included offers of job plums and threats of dismissal from government jobs already held. She and other Kennedy supporters early last January surveyed 80 percent of the county's registered Democrats and found the majority undecided but leaning toward the senator. Of those who declared a choice, she says, more were for Senator Kennedy than for President Carter.
"Carter had the strength in people who were going to the caucuses, and we had it among the people who weren't," she says.
Still, a reporter finds several Palo Alto Democrats who say they would have serious reservations about supporting Senator Kennedy if he should become the nominee. Concerns range from his trustworthiness to his reputation as a big spender.
"I think he's willing to unbalance the budget, and I know that my children and grandchildren would have topay for it," one Carter Democrat says.
Senator Kennedy's hard-swinging campaign tactics also have turned some potential supporters away.
"You can't take his stragegy and get anywhere," says one Democrat in an agriculture-related business. "You have to do a better job than the competition and prove your product is better. Running somebody else down is kids' play and that's all he does."
Despite Emmetsburg's Irish Roman Catholic roots, there appears to be little if any automatic support for the senator on religious grounds.
"Nobody's been coming out for him because he's a Catholic or talking badly about him because of it," Boyd Griffith observes.
Outnumbered Republicans here know they must get a strong candidate to get enough independent votes to give their side a majority.Many of them think they have the man in George Bush, who drew almost half the votes in the Republican caucus straw poll.
"I think there's a genuine feeling of support here for Bush," says S. J. Brownlee, an Emmetsburg businessman who manages farm property for absentee owners and who heads up the Bush campaign in Palo Alto County. "Each of the other candidates is flawed in some way . . . . And I think Bush conveys an image of strength and leadership that people have been looking for."
Still, there is support here for various other Republicans which could easily build if someone other than Mr. Bush should take the lead in any of the spring primarieS.
"I'm a Baker man, and I think he's going to be growing more and him -- also the candidate's stated preference for a running mate from a corn-belt state.
one Mallard Democrat and former Carter supporter says he would seriously consider voting for John Connally this time around: "He's not one to beat around the bush -- he has guts enough to say what he thinks."
Party switching, however, will not necessarily be one way. One Republican grain farmer from Curlew who voted for Gerald Ford last time says he doesn't think he will vote for any of the Republicans. Mr. Carter may get his support instead: "He's one of the few Democrats I could vote for."
Although farmers here complain bitterly about the high cost of diesel fuel and farming in general, a visiting reporter does not hear much from other voters about such once all-absorbing domestic issues as inflation, energy, and unemployment.
Instead, there appears to be strong support for an incumbent President facing a continuing international crisis -- even if it involves a grain embargo and even if farmers do not think it will work. There was no feeling among those interviewed that Mr. Carter should have left the White House to debate his competitors in Iowa.