WASHINGTON – The number of political luminaries already flying into Iowa these days not only signifies an early start in the White House 2008 campaign, but also offers a clue into the sizzling race in Iowa's 1st Congressional District.
In the last month, following the contentious Iowa Democratic and Republican primaries, big shots like Vice President Dick Cheney, White House political adviser Karl Rove and prospective 2008 Democratic presidential contenders John Edwards and Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana have come in to stump for the candidates in this northeastern Iowa district.
According to analysts, the flow may not let up until November as this appears to be one of the most competitive races in the country, with no clear frontrunner in sight for the seat left vacant by Republican Rep. Jim Nussle, who is running for governor.
"I think it's going to be tight right up to November," said Peverill Squire, political science professor at the University of Iowa.
Much of the contest has been attributed to the fact that neither of the two candidates for the congressional seat — Democrat Bruce Braley and Republican Mike Whalen — has an obvious advantage over the other, at least from the perspective of resources, name recognition or political experience.
That equality holds true especially in regard to the district's political makeup — Iowa's 1st District is nearly evenly split between Democrats, Republicans and independents.
"It is really a very competitive seat," said Squire. "The district is pretty much split between Republicans and Democrats and both candidates are going to have plenty of money so I don’t think either side will be able to outspend the other."
Braley and Whalen emerged from the grueling June 6 primaries, winning 37 percent and 48 percent, respectively, over multiple challengers.
Braley is a trial lawyer from Waterloo and past president of the Iowa Trial Lawyers Association. Whalen is a restaurant entrepreneur from Bettendorf.
Though neither man has held office and, until now, both have been relatively unknown outside of their home counties, the political party interests are already nationalizing the importance of the race, defining the success of their candidates along broad staple issues such as Social Security and health care — for the Democrats — and immigration and taxes — for the Republicans.
"I think it's very hard to nationalize an election, and I know the Democrats have said it's their intent to make this a referendum on Bush and the Republicans," said Whalen, who listed maintaining and creating jobs for Iowans and the global War on Terror as high priorities.
In the end, Whalen predicted people will say he "is a pro-growth entrepreneur and he has a pretty good idea of how we can continue to move things in the right direction economically."
Democrats say war in Iraq and gas prices will play big here. Officials from both parties say voters want to hear about the economy.
"[Voters] are looking for someone who will lay out a new agenda and a new direction for the country," said Erin Seigler, spokeswoman for the Iowa Democratic Party.
"I think this is the number one pick-up prospect for Democrats," said EJ Gallagher, chairman of the Blackhawk County Democratic Party. "I think Mr. Braley is an excellent candidate, he's articulate, he has a good life story."
Braley has gone on the offensive in recent weeks, attacking Republicans on Social Security, which because of a high senior population there, tends to be a hot-button issue for voters. He gave the Democrats' weekly national radio address on July 7.
"This November, voters face a clear choice," he said. "If you want to privatize Social Security, vote Republican. If you want to protect Social Security, vote Democratic."
Republicans were swift to respond, saying Braley was long on complaints, short on solutions. Ed Patru, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, struck out against what he called "Braley's love affair with trial lawyers and attorneys," and blamed skyrocketing health care costs in part on "frivolous lawsuits" brought by trial lawyers. "Most voters don't believe that future years of economic prosperity are going to come through a courtroom."
On the other hand, Patru added, "When you look at his resume, Whalen has spent a career creating jobs as a small businessman and is a contributing member of the community who has decided to give something back.
"The message is clear," Patru said. "Whalen has a clear advantage. He's right on the issues."
Steve Bateman, chairman of the Dubuque County Republicans, pointed out that Whalen and his wife built a successful business from the ground up. It now includes a host of restaurants and hotels across the state.
“He’s not a politician in the normal sense, but he has a lot to offer,” said Bateman.
Braley responded to Republican criticism of his profession, saying he is proud to have spent most of his career fighting for both defendants and plaintiffs against corporate special interests and for consumers. He also works as a legal aid attorney, taking on the cases of battered women and the homeless.
“I'm very proud for standing up for people against powerful special interests," he said, adding that he believes that attributes that will serve him well in Congress are "the ability to question people and hold them accountable for their behavior, and the ability to negotiate and craft legislation."
Whalen, however, said Braley hails from "the liberal wing of the Democratic Party."
Meanwhile, the money is pouring in on both sides. According to the most recent Federal Election Commission reports, Whalen has raised more than $971,000 so far. But the primary was expensive and he had $215,000 on hand as of June. Braley raised $824,000 and had $130,000 at the end of the quarter.
Both men have gotten a healthy influx from Washington donors, in particular from leadership political action committees led by big guns like Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert and former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat and prospective White House candidate in 2008.
Nathan Gonzales, editor of the Washington-based election the Rothenberg Political Report, said larger forces just might decide this race. Since the election is so close, national trends, which so far have been unfavorable to Republicans, could tip this one in Braley's favor.
"In this national environment, Democrats have a slight edge in nearly all of the pure toss-up races right now," he said. Democrats also note that this district went for Democratic Sen. John Kerry over President Bush 53 percent to 46 percent in 2004 and favored Democratic Vice President Al Gore over Bush in 2000.
Republicans say that doesn't matter, pointing out that Nussle has represented the district since 1990 with a fairly conservative approach.
Sara Sauber, spokeswoman for the Iowa Republican Party, insists the race will be decided on local issues. "This is a seat we think we can keep and we will be working hard for Mike Whalen to make sure we do that."