The line at the cavernous Smokey Row Coffee House in Oskaloosa stretched out the door and down the block, so long that dozens of Iowans waiting to see presidential candidate Barack Obama had to settle for a peek through the windows.
It was July 4, 2007, heady days for Obama in the Hawkeye State, where Democratic caucusgoers would soon launch him as a legitimate national contender, and where state voters would later turn out in record numbers to help put the first-term Illinois senator into the White House.
Five years, a national recession and a divisive health-care battle later, Obama's luster has dimmed in Iowa. He's now locked in a dead-heat battle with a candidate never fully embraced by state Republicans: GOP presidential nominee-in-waiting Mitt Romney.
Both are competing hard for the swing state's crucial six electoral votes. Romney just finished up his fourth Iowa presidential campaign visit, and Obama on Monday begins his fifth — a bus tour that will take him across the drought-stricken state, including a planned stop back in Oskaloosa.
There he can expect to find past supporters who, like Crystal Carman, 30, are warier, more worried and sapped of the new-start energy that fueled Obama's improbable rise here in the heart of the heartland.
"I'm still fairly undecided, and I'll pick based on who has the most common sense to keep things stable or make them better," says Carman, taking a break from working on her computer in a snug booth at Smokey Row.
"Economically it feels like we're not coming up, and we're not going down, but that, at any time, the boat could rock," she says. She works in the human resources department of a local electronic components company that has rebounded from layoffs in 2009 — its first in more than three decades.
"People are aware of what happened and what could still happen," she says.
Right Track Or Wrong Track?
Iowa has an economy that never felt the full brunt of the recession. Its unemployment rate stands at just over 5 percent and never rose much north of 6 percent, even when the nation was losing 800,000 jobs a month and reached a 10 percent unemployment rate.
An Iowa Workforce Development report this year found that the state's housing market had stabilized, the agriculture sector was strong and "farmland values in Iowa reached a historical peak in 2011." Those values increased to $6,708 an acre in the midst of the corn-for-ethanol boom driven by federal rules requiring that oil companies create billions of gallons of ethanol blends annually.
That would seem to play in Obama's favor, but, says David Yepsen, the former longtime Des Moines Register political columnist, "there's a difference between the unemployment numbers and how people feel."
"What's important is whether people feel the country is on the right track or the wrong track," says Yepsen, now director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. "Many have a job, but are scared, and they know other people who are scared."
There are also many conservatives who, like Jackie Eastridge, 59, a private practice nurse from Mitchellville, say they are convinced that while the state is stable and Obama is "well-intentioned," he's "ruining the economy."
"He's a socialist," Eastridge said recently as she left the Des Moines weekend farmers market with a bagful of purchases. "He's misguided, and they'll mess up health care just like they messed up Medicare and Medicaid."
Enter The Drought
In Iowa, that right track/wrong track calculation has recently been complicated by a historic heat wave and accompanying drought that has devastated a large swath of the state's corn fields.
"It makes people cranky," says Mike Schirm, 58, a farmer, country road worker and staunch conservative from Peru, Iowa, "but the last I looked, Romney couldn't do anything about rain, and neither can Obama."
And while the drought may put people in a bad mood and could ultimately influence food prices, those seemingly most directly affected — the farmers — are on pace for another year of record revenues.
"I know that there's a psychological downer effect for farmers in Iowa seeing their crops not perform as well as expected," says Bruce Babcock, an economics professor and director of the Biobased Industry Center at Iowa State University. "But $3-to-$5 billion in federally backed crop insurance will go to those farmers, depending on how severe their losses."
"And those checks will start arriving in October and November," Babcock says. In 2011, he says, 90 percent of Iowa's corn and soybean acreage was insured, a level likely equaled or exceeded this year.
Taxpayers fund 62 percent of the cost of crop insurance payments, he says.
"To hear some people talk, there is no role for government in our economy," Babcock says. "But when it comes to agriculture, I guess all politics is local."
Another local issue that has caused controversy in the state is a debate over wind energy tax credits. Romney has opposed credits for the industry, while Obama and leading Iowa Republicans, including Gov. Terry Branstad, support them.
But the big question for Obama in Iowa is likely to be the same as it is in other key states around the country: how and whether he'll get under-30 voters who helped fuel his win in 2008 to the polls this November, says Yepsen.
"If they're sitting on their hands, that's a problem," he says.
Tom Henderson, Democratic chairman of voter-rich Polk County, which includes Des Moines, says the campaign is keying in on young people and encouraging early voting.
"The Obama people believe that they'll get beat on the air, but will win on the ground," Henderson said recently at a candidate fundraising event.
The most recent poll of Iowa voters, by Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling, found nearly half disapprove of Obama's job performance. The same July poll found Romney with a 55 percent unfavorable rating. Nationally, 40 percent of Americans view Romney favorably, according to a recent ABC News-Washington Post survey, while 53 percent have a favorable view of Obama.
Both campaigns, and the political action committees that support them, have been focusing ad buys in Iowa. An analysis for NBC found that three of the top 10 hottest television markets for presidential ads last week were in the Hawkeye State.
Iowa Republicans, their rolls bolstered by a hard-fought presidential caucus in January, have a voter-registration advantage over Democrats, 620,584 to 598,995. In November 2008, registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans by more than 100,000.
Still, nearly 660,000 Iowans are registered under "no party," according to the secretary of state's August totals.
Striking A Chord
What's resonating with Iowa voters?
For Carole Comstock, 65, a retired elementary teacher from Oskaloosa and an Obama supporter, it's that she believes the president is "looking after women and those of us in the middle."
An Obama ad on heavy rotation in Iowa paints Romney's positions on women's health issues — he supports overturning Roe v. Wade and opposes insurance mandates covering contraception — as straight out of the 1950s. That ad has also resonated with Carman, the undecided voter, who says that Romney can seem "out of touch."
When Obama visits Oskaloosa, Comstock says, "I want to hear him say that [he's] going to work for everyone. I just don't think that things are as bad as they're made out to be."
But Romney's opposition to abortion and his stand against same-sex marriage — which Obama endorsed earlier this year — is attractive to the strong Christian conservative segment of the state's GOP base, people like Amy Valentine, 32, of Oskaloosa.
"A candidate's Christian values and pro-life stance are more important to me than the economy," says Valentine, a stay-at-home mother of three who was taking a break at Smokey Row before picking her children up at Sunday school.
Valentine, who is married to a police officer, says she'd prefer it if Romney were not of the Mormon faith, but his positions on social issues satisfy her.
'It's All Coming Down To Milk And Bread'
Romney's recent line of attack on Obama over changes he's suggested to work requirements for welfare recipients is likely to play well in the conservative areas surrounding the population center of Des Moines.
The Obama administration has said it will allow states to apply for waivers to the welfare law's work requirements if they offer an alternative that works better for their particular needs. A Romney ad charged that Obama wants to "gut" the work requirement — a claim that the independent fact-checking group Politifact concluded was not accurate.
But the theme of hard work versus handouts is one that appeals to voters like Dawn Evenson, 60, who works at the Chamber of Commerce visitors center in Winterset in conservative Madison County, home of covered bridges and the birthplace of John Wayne.
"In order to enrich your life, you have to work, you have to struggle," Evenson said recently near the town's handsome, if parched, central square. "I still think we're on the downturn. These are farmers who live here. They work for a living. They don't want handouts."
Romney's most effective message to Iowans, she says, is his business background and "his smarts" — and that he's not Obama.
"He's got to talk about the economy," she says. "It's all coming down to milk and bread."
Back at the Des Moines farmers market, Obama supporters Alex and Anna Lyznik, both 59 and research scientists with the Pioneer seed company, said they expect a very close race in November.
"We are still very proud of Obama, and he should stick to the message that things are better than when he got to the White House," says Anna, who came with her husband to the U.S. from Poland 28 years ago.
"We really like Lech Walesa," she said, referring to her native country's former president, who recently expressed support for Romney. "But we are not with him on this."
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