Cover Story

Middle men

"Middle men" Continued...

Issue: "Midwest's middle men," Oct. 21, 2000

But on Oct. 5, speaking from a classroom in suburban Detroit, Mr. Bush showed how "family values" had taken on a distinctively Rust Belt tone. "Today, I want to talk about how we can help deal with a culture that sometimes is the enemy of what parents are trying to teach," he said in a media market that reaches half of all suburban swing voters in the state. Among the proposed "tools for parents" that the government would provide under a Bush administration: federal tax breaks and regulatory freedom for corporate employees who work from home; increased flexibility to choose comp time rather than overtime pay; Internet filters in schools and libraries; and a "family hour" of non-objectionable TV programming in early prime time each night.

The next day, during a speech on the other side of the state, Mr. Gore shot back with his own version of Midwestern family values: expanded Head Start programs; tax cuts for child care; and more government-funded after-school programs. Neither man mentioned the family issues that are popular in more conservative sections of the country. Instead, each one's message was carefully tailored to polling results among suburban Midwesterners.

This "Midwest effect" can work both for and against conservatives. While the region's moderate politics may muffle Bible Belt issues, it also keeps the Democrats from playing to their core liberal constituency. Left-wing Democrats in California and New York, for instance, have called for more emphasis by Mr. Gore on issues such as gun control and unlimited abortion. But those are issues that don't play well in the heartland, leaving Mr. Gore to moderate his tone.

Some may grumble at the outsized role that five states have come to play in the election, but there's no denying their strategic importance. With 69 electoral votes among them, Iowa, Ohio, Michigan, Missouri, and Wisconsin are states that neither side can afford to write off. In fact, neither campaign has yet been able to come up with an electoral map that gets them to 270 votes without at least splitting the Rust Belt states. (Three other Midwestern states are no longer in play. Minnesota leans strongly Democratic, while Indiana goes just as strongly for Republicans. And, faced with an 11-point deficit in the polls, the Bush campaign has recently pulled its television ads in Illinois, which earlier had been considered a toss-up.)

Candidates like campaigning here because the states share so many demographic features. All are heavily unionized, thanks to their history of heavy manufacturing. Thousands of blue-collar, "Reagan Democrats" are liberal on issues like the minimum wage, but often fairly conservative on social issues. Outside the big cities, all five states have major agricultural economies, from the dairy farms of Wisconsin to the cornfields of Iowa. And, with the exception of Iowa, the states all have large Catholic populations-anywhere from 20 to 30 percent.

Given their shared interests, a candidate's message in one state is likely to resonate across the entire region. But there are differences, as well. From political machines to minority populations, each state presents a unique challenge to Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore. Here's a look at each candidate's opportunities and obstacles in this crucial region:

Iowa: With just eight electoral votes, Iowa usually gets ignored once its first-in-the-nation caucus is over. But the extraordinarily close election this year has put the state back on the political map. Though it leans Democratic, Iowa voters are quirky-even cranky. Democrats are better organized for get-out-the-vote efforts, but the religious right is strong here, which may offset Mr. Gore's natural union advantage.

Missouri: A classic swing state, Missouri has gone with the winner in every presidential election of the past 100 years (except 1956, when voters preferred Adlai Stevenson to Dwight Eisenhower). That makes it an important barometer of the national mood, as well as a source of 11 electoral votes. So far, that barometer has been inconclusive, with the latest polls showing the race deadlocked: 43 percent for Mr. Gore, 40 percent for Mr. Bush. Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan is running for Senate, which has kept his political machine from devoting its full attention to Mr. Gore. And Republicans believe a recent Clinton veto of a spending bill will drive voters to their party. The president insisted-and the vice president agreed-that the bill be rewritten to allow altering the flow of the Missouri River in order to protect two endangered species of birds. Farmers in the state argue that would cause flooding along the banks-and they vow to mobilize voters against the administration's stand.

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