WASHINGTON – With less than three weeks before the Iowa caucuses, Howard Dean (search) is picking a fight with John Kerry (search) over farm policy, trying to portray him as just another urban, Northeastern senator out of touch with the needs of Iowa farmers.
Farming is a big issue for Iowans, whose farms account for 10 percent of the state's jobs and one quarter of its total economic output.
Both candidates have made repeated pitches to Iowa (search) farmers.
"Countless numbers of your fellow citizens are losing their jobs on farms and losing their livelihood and their legacy of generations," Kerry told farmers one month ago.
"We're going to change the way that those crops which have supports get supports, by limiting payments so that the payments go to the family farms and not the big corporations," Dean said in October.
Now in the caucus homestretch -- the Democratic election is being held on Jan. 19 -- Dean is using the same issue that his biggest backer, former Vice President Al Gore, used with devastating effect against Bill Bradley in the 2000 campaign -- flood relief.
At one debate in 1999, Gore introduced Iowa farmer Chris Peterson. Floods had destroyed 400 acres of Peterson's crops in 1993. At the time, Gore was a senator, and he supported a bill that offered flood relief.
"Why did you vote against the disaster relief for Chris Peterson, when he and thousands of other farmers here in Iowa needed it after those '93 floods?" Gore asked Bradley, a former N.J. senator, who was in office at the time the bill was being debated.
"You know, Al, I think that the premise of your question is wrong," Bradley responded. "This is not about the past. This is about the future."
Now Peterson, a Dean supporter, is accusing Kerry, also a senator at the time the bill was debated, of the very same flood relief sin.
"Bill Bradley opposed important flood relief that would have made a world of difference to farmers like me. Now, four years later, we again have a Democrat U.S. senator from an industrial state running for president in Iowa who voted against the very same flood relief legislation that would have benefited rural Iowans," Peterson said in a written statement.
But Kerry's camp is fighting back, and accusing Dean of smear tactics. Kerry, in fact, did vote for the flood relief that Bradley opposed. The proof is on the Web site of recorded votes that Congress operates.
"Once again, Howard Dean has issued a statement that will likely result in a clarifying statement to correct the record. This time, Dean wrongly accused John Kerry of supporting farm legislation he didn't support and voting against flood relief for farmers that Kerry did support," said Stephanie Cutter, Kerry campaign spokesperson.
While the Kerry campaign said Dean will now have to eat his words, the farm fracas is about something deeper -- Dean's three-layered chess match with Kerry and Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt, who is also running strong in Iowa.
"We have a great ground organization, we've been building it for over a year, we know how to do this and I really believe my issues, my bold ideas are resonating with people in Iowa," Gephardt told Fox News.
Gephardt is expected to do well in Iowa, but Kerry is not. So Dean's Iowa strategy depends on making sure Kerry does not exceed expectations and build momentum for the New Hampshire primary eight days later.
In the meantime, Gephardt is doing his own critique of Dean, slamming him for making the unbelievable claim in a Wisconsin newspaper that "Nobody else comes from a farm state." The statement clearly set aside the fact that every state in the union is to one degree or another a farm state, and Gephardt's home state of Missouri has 110,000 farms compared to 6,600 in Dean's home of Vermont.
That number ranks seventh among the nine states that are represented by the candidates seeking the presidential nomination. But even if Dean isn't the only one running from a farm state, he is the only one to raise $15 million in the fourth quarter of 2003. Kerry raised nearly $9 million, Gephardt just over $1 million and retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark has brought in about $10 million.