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JEFFERSON, Iowa — In a machine shed on a farm here, standing in front of a large American flag and a green and yellow tractor, Rep. Richard Gephardt was betting his political career on the idea that family farmers are being hurt by free trade.

“Our farmers can compete with anyone in the world, if we get them on a level playing field,” Gephardt said, radiating Midwestern solidity as he slammed the North American Free Trade Agreement.

This farm, about 70 miles northwest of Des Moines, the 200,000-person capital, is surrounded for miles with nothing but corn fields and the occasional grain elevator. It was just 10 days before the Iowa caucuses, and Gephardt, from neighboring Missouri, was playing to his heartland audience: “I trust your judgment; I trust your values,” the blond lawmaker, dressed simply in a checked sports shirt and plain wool jacket, said in closing.

As Iowans get ready to vote in the January 19 caucuses, the first event of the Democratic primary season, the eyes of America are trained on such pastoral places as this machine shed. Jefferson — there is supposed to be a town somewhere nearby — is prime Gephardt country, as it was during the Missourian’s 1988 presidential run. Among the four dozen folks who came out to hear Gephardt on this wintry afternoon was an elderly farmer in a wheelchair, a red trucker’s cap on his head, who held a campaign poster from that time. It showed a sweet-faced Gephardt, then 46, looking concerned as he listened to a group of workers.

The atmosphere in the shed was as old-timey as the country-western tunes that played over the loudspeaker. The farm’s owner, Robert Ausberger, introducing the candidate, conjured an ancient agricultural metaphor: the feud between the farmer and the herdsman. “We need to defeat the rancher from Texas,” Ausberger said. It was clear who he meant.

But even in this pastoral Eden, the worm of urban values intruded. Among a class of high school students who were bused in to hear Gephardt — residents can participate in the caucuses if they will be 18 by November — were a few sporting punky or hip-hop styles, including a girl with a ring though her lip. A Howard Dean voter? The conservative Club for Growth has been running television ads here bashing the Vermonter, saying he should take his “tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating…body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show back to Vermont.”

But here, in Anywhere, USA, was a pierced body part. Oh, the surprises of Iowa.

Gephardt, who has been running on a union-friendly platform, needs to win this state to survive. He is counting on a 21-union coalition, headed up by the steelworkers, to get out his vote. “The tortoise,” as he is known among his campaign staff, is building his hopes on the backs of workers such as Olin Clayton, 52, a fork-lift operator who spends hours making calls for the candidate at a phone bank in a union hall out near the Des Moines airport.

Gephardt has been holding his own in polls, but Dean edges him slightly. That stasis worries some: Poll after poll comes out, but the tortoise’s numbers don’t budge. But Gephardt’s state campaign director, John Lapp, isn’t concerned. He said some Republican and Independent union members, especially Teamsters, will re-register as Democrats to support his man at the caucuses: “We’re growing the electorate in independent ways, just like other candidates are claiming to do.”

Massachusetts Senator John Kerry and North Carolina Senator John Edwards, enjoying large crowds and high-profile endorsements, both claim that they are gaining momentum here. Another candidate has a foothold: Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who has impressed many Iowans with his populist economics and anti-war stance. Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman and retired general Wesley Clark, however, are skipping the caucuses.

The caucuses, in which voters assemble in public places to stand for their candidate, work by an arcane math: If any candidate’s supporters do not attain a certain threshold percentage at a precinct, they can leave, or realign themselves with one of the viable candidates, so second and third choices can sway results. The bottom line is: nobody knows what will happen.

Here, as everywhere, the Jewish community has its role in the political drama, although not primarily as voters. In a state of 3 million, a Jewish population of 7,000 (3,500 in Des Moines) hardly registers as a voting bloc, even though Jews are mostly Democrats and heavy caucus-goers. As a group, the Jews are dividing their support “all over the map,” several observers said.

David Kaufman, rabbi of Temple B’nai Jeshurun of Des Moines, the largest congregation in Iowa with 365 families, said his flock for the most part is gravitating toward Dean, Kerry and Edwards, although some are with Gephardt. While Dean probably has the greatest support, Kaufman detects a movement in recent weeks from Dean to Kerry and Edwards because of Dean’s “stress on his Christianity for the Southern campaign.” Interestingly, Edwards is perceived as the most strongly pro-Israel candidate, because of remarks he made about the necessity of ending terror at one of the recent Iowa debates, Kaufman said.

But, as usual for Democratic politics, the Jewish contribution here, in terms of activism and money, belies the community’s size.

Paulee Lipsman, the slight, dark director of research for the Democratic legislators at the Des Moines state house, is perhaps the most active Jewish Democrat in Iowa. A Kerry supporter and former member of the Democratic National Committee, Lipsman runs training sessions on how to conduct the caucuses. Her dedication landed her in the lead anecdote in an article on the subject on the front page of the January 13 New York Times.

Another Jewish Kerry supporter, real estate developer Harry Bookey, has made a different contribution to politics: He has lovingly renovated Des Moines’s old Masonic Temple, creating a “Temple for Performing Arts” with a theater and a hopping restaurant-bar, Centro, which has become the favored hangout for the politicos and reporters now swarming like locusts through the state.

“For our money, Centro has replaced 801 [the steakhouse at 801 Grand Avenue] — and we never thought that that would happen,” wrote the team at ABC News’s daily political report, The Note.

Even the local Republicans have their big Jewish activist — lawyer Harlan “Bud” Hockenberg, chairman of Senator Charles Grassley’s re-election campaign, who kindly greeted a reporter in his offices in the aforementioned 801 Grand, a great ocher phallus of a tower in Des Moines. Hockenberg, like any longtime political observer, was happy to handicap the race, which he called “a struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party.” Gephardt, a former House majority and minority leader, is a “used-ta-be,” he said, as is Lieberman. Edwards is a “wannabe.” The three real contenders in his view are Dean, Kerry and Clark. If Dean wins the nomination, Hockenberg predicted, “Dean will be another [Al] Gore, Gore will be a messenger for Dean and [Bill] Clinton will be in control of the Democratic Party.”

Last week, as the campaigns began their final pushes before the caucuses, the atmosphere in Des Moines was alive with expectation. At the Dean campaign’s “Storm Center,” some of the 3,500 young volunteers flooding the state assembled packets for those canvassing Iowa communities, which included fluorescent orange “Perfect Storm” hats, wristbands and IDs. Many volunteers were staying at winterized cabins, 20 to a cabin, “boys on one side, girls on the other,” said Dean spokeswoman Christy Setzer. The main Dean headquarters next door, however, felt hunkered down, even as press reports spoke of Dean’s lead wobbling: The staff there did not let a reporter mosey about unescorted.

Kerry’s hub, down the street from Dean’s, also bustled. There, unlike the youthful energy of the Dean environs, a family feeling prevailed, with old and young volunteers working together. At Gephardt’s digs, in West Des Moines, the vibe was grimmer: determination.

Olin Clayton, who has been helping squads of steelworkers, Teamsters, laborers and boilermakers get out Gephardt’s vote, was not impressed with Dean’s organization. “Dean’s got a lot of teenagers,” he sniffed. “If they’ve got to go somewhere, they’re gone tomorrow.”

Bad blood has manifested itself already. Last week, Gephardt’s campaign charged that some out-of-state Deaniacs were plotting to vote illegally in the caucuses, a concern heightened by the news that a pair was caught trying to spy on a Kerry outpost.

Lipsman, the Kerry supporter, discounted the prospects of such manipulation. “If you wanted to abuse the system, you could abuse the system in a primary state, too,” she told the Forward.

At Ausberger’s machine shed, Gephardt shook some hands, posed for some photos and got into his van. Iowa could be the end of his career, because he is not running for re-election to his congressional seat. Or it could be the start of the road to the White House. The sky was an impenetrable gray.


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