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Harkin: Liberal Fire on the Prairie

Populist Iowa Democrat is chasing President Bush with the zeal and energy of mentor Harry Truman. US PRESIDENTIAL POLITICS

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WHEN Robert Woodward showed his journalism class at Drake University a videotaped speech by presidential candidate Tom Harkin, the students divided sharply into two groups.Conservative members of the class "got quickly upset," says Professor Woodward, but liberal students "really liked him." Senator Harkin has that effect. A firebrand populist Democrat from Iowa who admires former President Harry Truman, Harkin vows that if he wins his party's nomination, the Republicans will have a donnybrook on their hands. "Ol' George," he says sarcastically of President Bush, has "never met anybody like me. We're going to have some fun." Fun for Democrats, perhaps. At a recent rally in New Hampshire, Harkin tore into Mr. Bush, whom he chides as the rich man's tool. Bush couldn't understand the common man's problems even if he ate "three bags of pork rinds every day," Harkin says, ridiculing the president's affinity for that popular Southern snack. Rip-snorting rhetoric, often laced with Truman-style profanities, is a Harkin trademark. His sharp-edged style shocks some Iowans, amuses others, and has turned many people here into either Harkin-lovers or Harkin-loathers. But the senator remains unfazed. Hugh Winebrenner, a political scientist at Drake and expert on the Iowa presidential caucuses, says: "Senator Harkin takes strong stands on issues. He doesn't back away from controversy. He seems to enjoy it." Dr. Winebrenner explains: "Harkin runs counter to the grain of the modern-day politician, who tries to be all things to all people. Harkin tells you what he's thinking, and says it most directly.... He does not seem to have that strong need that most of us have to be liked and loved.... He doesn't seem to care if he's a member of the club. He does his own thing, and thinks that he's doing the right thing." What he often does is pummel the president and the Republicans, while supporting policies that win cheers from the liberal-oriented Americans for Democratic Action. His entire Senate career shows a year-by-year ADA rating of over 90 percent, which is even more consistently liberal than Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts. Russell Ross, who taught political science at the University of Iowa for over 40 years, says Harkin is "a traditional Democrat of the Humphrey-Truman school. He believes very strongly in organized labor.... He believes in the good, old, strong Democratic Party principles." During his 16-year career in the House and Senate, Harkin has "voted right down the line with Democrats. He very seldom got off the reservation," Dr. Ross observes. There's a special, Midwestern quality to Harkin's liberalism that separates him from some other Democrats, however. Through the years, Harkin has demonstrated a kind poor man's prairie populism, fighting for family farmers, the disabled, the factory worker, the unemployed. He has said: "In a free economic system, there come times when too few people have too much wealth and too much power, and too many people have neither of both. It's the primary purpose of government to redress that imbalance." The senator, whose brother Frank is deaf, says the proudest moment of his political career came in 1990 when Bush signed one of Harkin's top priorities, the Americans With Disabilities Act. Because of that law, the civil rights of more than 40 million Americans with physical and mental disabilities are protected. If Harkin wins the Democratic nomination, the big question will be whether he can turn attention away from the nation's military and political victories abroad, which have sustained Bush's popularity levels near 70 percent, and make voters look at problems right at home. One of Harkin's favorite lines: "George Herbert Walker Bush has feet of clay, and I'm going to take a hammer to them." But Harkin's strategists know that in foreign policy, Bush's feet aren't clay, they are solid gold. Unless Democrats can make education, the environment, and the lackluster economy the No. 1 issues, then Democratic prospects in 1992 are bleak. The polls offer some hope. A survey of 1,233 adults nationwide by ABC News in September found that 66 percent felt that Bush was not spending enough time on domestic problems. Over 75 percent believed that Bush was spending too much time on overseas issues, including 51 percent of Republicans and 66 percent of independents. Even so, there are doubts that Harkin's populism will be enough to oust the president next year. Susan Estrich, who helped run the presidential campaign of Massachusetts Democrat Michael Dukakis in 1988 and now teaches law at the University of Southern California, says Harkin's populist rhetoric could serve him well enough in the Democratic primaries. It will appeal to the kind of partisan, activist Democrats who usually turn out to vote in those party contests, she says. However, Ms. Estrich warns that populism only goes so far in general elections. Harkin must find a way to broaden his appeal in ways that reach out to disaffected middle-class voters who worry more about taxes than about unemployment, more about government waste than about new government programs, the professor says. Those who have watched Harkin closely wonder whether he has that kind of political breadth.

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