Cover Story

Highway hopefuls

"Highway hopefuls" Continued...

Issue: "Highway 65 hopefuls," April 20, 2002

That's a sentiment that may spell trouble for Mr. Wellstone come November. Minnesota notched the country's fastest-growing black population over the past decade, and its overall minority population has doubled in that time. The state's Nordic identity seems at risk, even among many blue-collar workers who might normally vote Democratic.

But exploiting such sentiments is risky. A few dozen yards away from Mr. Johnson, an extended Mexican family is also enjoying the snow. The best hills are taken by the white kids, and the Hispanic families are wary of encroaching. Diego, who refuses to give his last name, says he's heard the talk of government giveaways, and it makes him mad.

"Nobody gives me anything," he says, as his wife tries to keep the children away. "I working two jobs. My wife, she working also. We hope our children will be rich one day. This is why we come to America." Diego says his friends will all vote for Mr. Wellstone, whom they view as a friend. "The other people, they wish we just go away."

Further south, on the Iowa state line, the little town of Albert Lea hasn't seen much of an immigrant influx. The membership rolls at Elks Lodge 813 still read like the Stockholm phone book: Stensrud, Bjerke, Dillemuth, Overgaard. But even here, Mr. Wellstone's giveaway reputation is well established.

The senator "wants to give everything away," says Bob Herman, a local businessman. "He wants to give $100,000 to immigrants to help them settle in. Our party changed a lot. I used to be a Democrat, now I vote for the man."

Mr. Herman says many farmers are wary of Sen. Wellstone, but as a big-city mayor, Mr. Coleman can't automatically count on their votes. "He did a lot for the city of St. Paul, but he's got a little work to do in agricultural communities like Albert Lea." While the local farm economy is fairly stable, "no one's getting ahead," and farmers often feel overlooked in politics. "Two-thirds of the population lives in the Twin Cities," Mr. Herman complains, an exaggeration that betrays an us-versus-them mentality that may prevent the Republicans from generating much enthusiasm among rural voters.

In Iowa, by contrast, no politician would dare overlook the farmers. The state's 90,000 farms produce crops and livestock valued at $12 billion annually-the lifeblood of Iowa's economy. All those farmers have helped send Tom Harkin to the Senate for 18 years, and, as chairman of the powerful Agriculture Committee, he's in the perfect position to repay them for their support.

Still, Republicans see a chance to pick up this seat in a state that went for Al Gore by just 4,000 votes in the 2000 presidential race. The national party has anointed Greg Ganske, a moderate congressman first elected in 1994's "Republican Revolution" as its last, best hope to carry this swing state.

Unfortunately for Washington's power brokers, Bill Salier didn't seem to get that memo. The 33-year-old former Marine farms 300 acres just off Highway 65, near the northern Iowa town of Mason City. While the National Republican Senatorial Committee pretends Mr. Ganske is the only Republican in the race, Mr. Salier has been quietly shaking tens of thousands of hands around the state for nearly two years now. By his own reckoning, he's slept in his own bed just 14 nights since last Thanksgiving.

"The NRSC has no idea what's actually going on here in Iowa.... They're going with the conventional wisdom that we need to nominate a moderate against a liberal. That doesn't work. There's no incentive for Reagan Democrats to come back. There's no inspiration for independents. Elections follow when you lead on principle."

With his intense blue eyes, slightly graying buzz cut, and erect bearing, Mr. Salier looks like a Marine out of Central Casting. Still, it's clear that he's no professional politician. He's delivering his anti-establishment speech from the Formica-topped table in his pea-green kitchen while his mother stands nearby, peeling potatoes over the sink. Yet even in this odd setting, he articulates his conservative principles with passion, and some in Washington have begun to notice. Conservative groups like the NRA, Eagle Forum, Club for Growth, and Campaign for Working Families have all met with him recently, and some have toyed publicly with the idea of endorsing him.

Despite Mr. Salier's two years of almost non-stop campaigning, Edith Butler admits she doesn't know much about Mr. Salier. The small, older lady in a pink cardigan and mousy blond wig is on duty today at the Buggy Whip Antique Mall in Iowa Falls, about an hour south of Mason City. Highway 65 slices right through the picturesque little town with the decidedly '50s feel (no parking meters, no Starbucks, a wooden band shell that looms over the little public square).

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