Down and Dirty

Iowa Senate Race

A RECENT CARTOON for the Des Moines Register said it all. It showed one skunk with the face of Republican Senator Roger W. Jepsen and another skunk with the face of Democratic Representative Tom Harkin. The two were spraying each other to death.

The race for Jepsen's Senate seat has been a see-saw battle of Iowa mudslinging, cheap shots, and groin kicks. Jepsen's advertisements have stopped just short of accusing his opponent of treason, while one of Harkin's better known television commercials shows a close-up of a snorting hog while a voice over accuses Jepsen of insensitivity.

What's worse, the bad-mouthing and image-bashing seems to have been paying off. Last summer Jepsen began overtaking Harkin's seven point lead in the polls on the strength of his heavily negative advertising, and by mid-September he was nine points in front. Last month Harkin began to respond in kind, and according to the Des Moines Register's Iowa poll, he now leads 46 percent to Jepsen's 41 percent. Both candidates are expected to spend close to $3 million apiece, largely from PAC and Party funds.

Jepsen who was far ahead at the beginning of the 1984, has shot himself in the foot with repeated gaffes and embarrassments. Jepsen claimed to be a paratrooper in World War II, but he did not join the Army until 1946, after the fighting had stopped. After being pulled over in Washington D.C. for driving in the car pool lane, he claimed Congressional immunity from arrest, attracting deservedly sarcastic press attention. Next came accusations of payroll padding, and finally the disclosure that in 1977 Jepsen had been a member of Leisure Spa Ftd, Patronized by some of Iowa's political and business leaders, the "Spa" was reputedly Iowa's best brothel until closed by the police. Jepsen offered three differing explanations for the Spa incident before lapsing into indignant silence, but he has protested that this episode was before he was "born again" and heard the call of God.

Harkin has accordingly adopted the campaign slogan "A Senator lowans can be proud of," but it should probably read "A Senator lowans can be less ashamed of" Harkin also inflated his war record, bragging about flying "combat air patrols" in Vietnam when he had actually flown planes from Vietnam to Japan For repairs. The and a few other impolitic statements from the past that Jesen dug up and quoted in an advertisement crippled Harkin's Mr. Clean image, contributing to his decision to get down and dirty.

The race has also absorbed some of the personality of the Presidential campaign. When not indulging in character assassination Jepsen has run a fluff campaign, capitalizing on his senatorial looks (he lost a lot of weight before the campaign). He has basked in the glow of Reagan's popularity in the best Shamiesque style, faithfully toeing the Republican line on every issue. His best known display of party spirit (or political pusillanimity, depending on one's perspective) occurred in 1981 during the Senate debate over the sale of AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia. Jepsen had loudly announced that he opposed the sale of AWACs because weakening Israel violated his religious conscience. The White House summoned Jepsen, showed him his political grave, and asked him if he wanted to step into it. Jepsen stunned the Senate by reversing his vote at the last minute.

Harkin, on the other hand, has distanced himself from the Mondale campaign, stressing that he is running against Roger Jepsen, not Ronald Reagan. He has criticized the high interest rates that threaten 10 percent of Iowa's farmers with imminent bankruptcy, and denounced Agriculture Secretary John Block's handling of the farm crisis. Jepsen merely promises that the economic recovery will eventually flow into Iowa.

In most respects, Harkin is the model liberal: pro-choice, strongly supportive of Carter's human rights policies, critical of the Pentagon's "gold-plated tinkertoys", and concerned about the budget deficit. He was first elected to represent one of Iowa's most conservative districts in the 1974 Watergate sweep, and held on to its loyalties with unstinting constituent service and passionate defense of agricultural interests.

THE VOLATILITY of the Iowa race reflects the deep political division within the state. Jepsen has a lock on the 40 percent of the electorate that votes solid conservative, and Harkin has a similarly sized bed of committed liberal support. That leaves the middle 20 percent of the voters to decide the election. These voters are mostly moderates unhappy with both Jepsen's doctrinaire conservatism and Harkin's unbridled liberalism. Disillusioned with problems, disaffected by the candidates, and disturbed about Iowa's economic crisis, they are more prone to vote against a candidate then for him. The success of Harkin and Jepsen's ads are sad testimony to the deep level of cynical defeatism within the Hawkeye state.