The Magazine

Who Harks to Harkin?

Will the Iowa senator make a difference in Iowa?

Dec 22, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 15 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

WHEN AL GORE endorsed Howard Dean for president last Tuesday, first in New York City and again in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Tom Harkin, Iowa's four-term Democratic senator, was working in his office in Washington. He must have felt a little left out.

Harkin, you see, had made lots of noise about how he would be the Democratic kingmaker in next month's Iowa caucuses. Last May, Harkin organized the first of 10 "Hear it from the Heartland" forums, in which he introduced the various Democratic presidential candidates to Iowa caucus-goers. In September, he held his 26th annual "Harkin Steak Fry," renowned as the largest state-wide gathering of Iowa Democrats, in which he . . . well, reintroduced the candidates to Iowa caucus-goers. It was expected that, after all the introductions, Harkin would finally endorse the candidate he liked best, and back that candidate with his considerable political organization come January. That hasn't happened. Yet.

Would a Harkin endorsement even matter at this point? Peverill Squire, a political scientist at the University of Iowa, thinks so. "Harkin would be a major player if he decided to throw around his weight," he says, noting that the senator, who has been involved in Iowa politics for over 30 years, has contacts in each of Iowa's 99 counties, as well as strong ties to Iowa's powerful labor unions.

Those contacts have helped candidates before. One former Gore operative says Harkin's endorsement was central to the vice president's victory over Bill Bradley in the 2000 caucuses. (Gore thanked Harkin effusively in his Iowa victory speech.) And David Yepsen, the Des Moines Register's chief political writer, says that Tom Vilsack, Iowa's governor since 1998 and the state's most popular Democrat, "owes the governorship to Harkin."

The senator's political and campaign operations, writes Michael Barone in the latest "Almanac of American Politics," are second to none. Barone notes that during the 2002 Senate race, for example, Harkin "ran an effective, high-tech voter registration and turnout operation," which helped him win votes not only in his traditional urban base, but also in rural districts. "There's no other Democrat similarly positioned" to influence the caucuses, says Dennis Goldford, a professor at Drake University in Des Moines. "He's the only game in town statewide."

Harkin thinks so, too: "I'm now the nine-hundred-pound gorilla," he told political writer Walter Shapiro in February. "I have the best organization. I have the best [voter] list."

The presidential candidates seem to agree. Each participated eagerly in Harkin's candidate forums. Each courted the senator in different ways. Mainly, they showered him with compliments. "I have seen Tom on the floor of the U.S. Senate with a backbone of steel," John Edwards told one crowd of Iowa Democrats, "when it's just him and nobody else--no matter who he's fighting against." In September, at a "Hear it from the Heartland" forum, an audience member asked Joe Lieberman about his farm policy. "My farm policy begins right over there," Lieberman said, pointing to a beaming Harkin. (Harkin was an architect of the 2002 farm bill.)

When you watch the "Hear it from the Heartland" forums, it's easy to think that Harkin, not the featured candidate, is the one running for president. Take the Lieberman forum, for example, which you can find on C-SPAN's website. Harkin enters the meeting hall with Lieberman, accompanied by rock music. He shakes as many hands as the candidate. His name--not the candidate's--is plastered throughout the room in bold, blue letters. Eventually, he makes it to the stage, whereupon he says that he's here because, "I wanted to establish a series of forums and find out what's important to you."

But, instead, you find out what's important to Tom Harkin. Like the economy: "We now have the lowest numbers of manufacturing jobs in the United States since 1958, when I graduated from high school." And health care, a lack of which, Harkin tells the crowd, forced one woman he knows to "take out her tooth with a hammer and a screwdriver." You get the idea. Or maybe you don't, in which case Harkin is happy to sum up: President Bush and congressional Republicans "are gambling with your lives."

If the stakes are so high, why isn't Harkin running himself? He's done it before. In 1992, Harkin ran for the Democratic nomination as an unreconstructed liberal. His supporters wore T-shirts emblazoned with the logo "Give 'em hell Harkin." One observer of Iowa politics remembers that, in stump speeches, Harkin would say he was the only candidate who wouldn't put up with any "bulls--t" in Washington.