In a biting cold wind, on a hillside overlooking the huge round metal bins and spidery auger pipes of the Pro Farmer Grain Elevator just outside Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Paul Simon was worriedly testing his microphone. TV reporters shivered as their camera crews calculated angles and sound technicians tried to deal with the wind noise. “He’ll talk about grain exports and the embargo,” an advance man confided urgently. “He’ll mention Gephardt by name.”

The senator from Illinois had reason to worry about Missouri representative Richard Gephardt. In the seemingly endless battle for the hearts, minds, and votes of roughly 100,000 Iowa Democrats who will cast the first ballots of the 1988 presidential campaign at caucus meetings this Monday, the lead has shifted back and forth. According to the inescapable polls, Simon, the front-runner last fall, had slipped to second after Gary Hart’s reentry to the race, and now, in January, Gephardt was gaining on him, possibly overtaking him.

So Simon, who had preferred lofty rhetoric about making it possible for Americans to believe and dream, now was fighting back, albeit in his gentlemanly fashion. After claiming that his bill to increase ethanol use in auto fuels would mean new markets and higher prices for Iowa corn, eliminating the price-depressing surpluses stored in the bins behind him, Simon delivered what the advance man promised. He criticized Gephardt for supporting Reagan’s 1981 tax cuts, which favored the rich, and for supporting the 1985 farm bill, which was opposed by both of Iowa’s senators, and–the most sensitive politically–for supporting Jimmy Carter’s embargo on grain sales to the Soviet Union, which many farmers still blame for the start of their seven-year depression.

“I’m committed to fighting for the working American, for the less fortunate, for the family farmer,” Simon insisted, his baritone vibrating in an effort to convey heartfelt dedication. Then, finished with this last in a series of fly-around press conferences, his untelegenic features reddened from the cold, Simon quipped as he strolled to the car: “It’s kind of nice and pleasant out here.”

Simon feels comfortable in Iowa, and Iowans seem to feel comfortable with him. As he reminds most audiences, he’s from Rural Route 1, Makanda, Illinois, population 402, “and that’s about as rural as you can get.” Although Iowa has some moderate-sized cities, it has more acres and income in agriculture than any state other than California. Despite a cultural conservatism that they share with Simon’s rural and small-town southern Illinois neighbors, Iowa Democrats tend to be more liberal and antimilitarist than downstate Illinois Democrats. That makes Simon even more at home: on issues like civil rights and peace, he’s always been to the left of his political base.

Many Iowans are familiar with Simon as their political next-door neighbor. Were it not for that familiarity and the influential role played by the Iowa caucuses, Simon would probably not be running for president this year, and the same can be said of Missourian Gephardt. Both are regional candidates who have mounted major efforts and attracted substantial support in Iowa but are largely unknown and find only modest support outside the midwest. Polls show that Iowans give Simon a higher approval rating than any other Democrat. He hopes that something in the last days of campaigning can turn that warm glow into a spark of enthusiasm, igniting a prairie fire that can sweep all the way to New Hampshire in a week, turning him into a national candidate.

But Simon is not the only Illinois contender plying the roads and skies of Iowa this winter. Jesse Jackson, who skipped the Iowa caucus in his 1984 campaign because he thought there was little to be gained there, sees Iowa differently this year. And Iowans have been surprised by what they see and hear from him.

Jackson is certain to go the route to the Democratic convention, at the least picking up more delegates than last time. If Simon successfully jumps the Iowa hurdle, he may very well be a major contender at a lively Atlanta convention. The two Illinoisans in contention for the Democratic nomination provide a striking contrast with the ex-Illinoisan now in the White House.

Iowa is anything but natural Jackson territory: blacks make up 1 percent of the population. Many Iowans have had few direct encounters with blacks. A middle-aged farm wife, a former Republican who’s now an ardent Jackson backer, one evening was worried about Jackson’s health and embarrassedly asked whether blacks turn pale when they’re tired and run-down. Even Iowa’s biggest city, Des Moines, is like an overgrown Rockford, a more sophisticated town than strangers expect but hardly an urban cauldron. Yet Jackson has won a surprisingly large and passionate following in Iowa. Polls suggest he may get 10 to 12 percent of the caucus vote (the three front-runners in the last Des Moines Register poll–Gephardt, Simon, and Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis–were essentially tied at 17 to 19 percent). And even that showing, a strong one for a candidate whose 1984 “rainbow” was often derogated as monochromatic, fails to communicate the full measure of Jackson’s impact. “Jackson’s reception has been great,” observed George Brown, political director of the Iowa State Education Association. “You run into a lot of people who say they really like what he says. Are they going to vote for him at the caucus? I don’t know. But Jackson would come close to second if everyone who liked him voted for him.”

Despite a huge gap in background and personality, Simon and Jackson have more in common with each other than they do with any of the other Democratic candidates. Gephardt has been a moderate to conservative Democrat, now opportunistically trying to appear the fire-breathing populist. Senator Albert Gore has been a moderate, now trying to appear more conservative. Dukakis has been a cool-headed, cool-hearted, well-meaning liberal who hasn’t yet spelled out very clearly how he would translate “the miracle of Massachusetts” into a national phenomenon. Gary Hart and former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt stake out the neoliberal territory: they are democratic in foreign affairs, technocratic and market oriented in domestic policies, and they wrap the package together in a political vocabulary that clicks mainly for the middle class. Simon and Jackson, meanwhile, espouse more traditional liberal-left Democratic politics, speaking out on behalf of the economic interests of workers, farmers, and the victimized, needy, and powerless.

Simon and Jackson were respectively the top two choices of one of Iowa’s leading peace groups, STAR-PAC. (No candidate received the two-thirds vote that the group requires to make an endorsement, and all of the Democrats but Gore were judged passable.) Both Simon and Jackson also strongly emphasize the creation of jobs by the federal government when the private economy falls short, and the need for investment in infrastructure–roads, sewers, mass transit, and the like (the latter is also a plank in Gary Hart’s program). Both argue against recent tax trends and favor placing the tax burden more on wealthier taxpayers and corporations (Jackson more forcefully and consistently than Simon).

Despite their political liberalism, each also has a distinct appeal to cultural conservatives. Simon presents a well-manipulated but also genuine image of impeccable honesty (his career started as a 19-year-old small-town newspaper editor crusading against corruption) and strait-laced, old-fashioned civic virtue. (One campaign joke: Did you hear the rumors going around about Simon? Somebody saw him with his seat belt unfastened.) To the consternation of many labor and liberal allies and most professional economists, Simon has also been a leading advocate of the Republicans’ panacea, the constitutional amendment for a balanced budget. Simon is not a clergyman like Jackson, but his father was a Lutheran minister. And Simon has an earnest mainstream ministerial message of caring and concern, even if it’s not the social gospel verging on liberation theology that Jackson embodies.

Jackson has his own conservative appeal. Indeed, in a poll conducted late last year by CBS and the New York Times, Jackson was drawing as much support from conservative white Democrats around the country as most of his white rivals were. He is strongly moralistic, and there’s enough of the preacher remaining in his largely secular stump speeches to inspire many devout churchgoers (and occasionally worry strict secularists). He makes attacks on drugs one of the cornerstones of his campaign. But he also makes fair and compassionate government sound like bedrock Americanism.

In one of his favorite Iowa campaign parables, Jackson tells listeners that Christmas isn’t about gifts and Santa Claus. What it’s about, he says–here the audience is primed for the usual clerical invocation of the original Christmas story–is a homeless couple who’ve been rejected by a Housing and Urban Development bureaucrat (the innkeeper) and abandoned by a government that taxed them but did not represent them (Herod). Wise men–wise men, Jackson emphasizes–brought their gifts to the homeless.

“I think he’s a real person, a real Christian,” said Dawn Naig, an elderly Republican, after hearing Jackson speak outside the tiny town of Emmetsburg. “We need a man like him in the White House.”

Despite their similarities, of course, there are significant differences between Jackson and Simon.

Simon sees the federal budget deficit as the main obstacle to overall management of the economy. The deficit, he argues, squeezes out needed expenditures for education and health care and pushes up interest rates. It forms a large (and the fastest growing) part of the federal budget burden and it shifts income from the majority to the wealthy: taxes paid by working people end up in the pockets of the well-to-do who buy government bonds. Simon says he would allow deficits only in recessions, as economic stimulants. He insists he could balance the budget in three years by lowering interest rates, expanding trade (thus creating jobs and taxable income), and making modest cuts in the military. As a last resort–but it’s a “last resort” that’s virtually necessary to make the plan meaningful, one of his chief economic advisers admits–Simon would raise taxes: modestly increasing income tax on the most wealthy, closing some significant corporate exemptions, raising “sin” taxes, and imposing an oil import tax (the most regressive of his options).

Jackson has his own plan to reduce the deficit, essentially “getting out of it the way we got in.” He’d reverse the Reagan formula and restore taxes on corporations to their 1980 level; he would keep the top income tax bracket at 38 percent rather than bring it down to 28 percent as now scheduled, and he would cut the military more sharply. But Jackson, far more than the other candidates, discounts the deficit as the major cause of our economic malaise. He focuses more on the behavior of major corporations.

“We must discuss Cargill and Iowa Beef,” Jackson told an early morning audience in West Okoboji, referring to the state’s dominant meat packer and to a huge international grain dealer and agribusiness conglomerate. “We must discuss General Electric and General Motors, the beneficiaries of Reagan’s largesse that are closing factories and taking our jobs to repressive labor markets abroad.”

While Simon advocates ending tax incentives for mergers and most overseas investment, he rarely focuses attention on corporate misdeeds. Jackson, on the other hand, continually leads his audience to the view that family farmers, factory workers, and welfare mothers have a common foe in big business and a common interest that should overshadow their differences.

“Whether you’re on the south side of Chicago or Missouri or El Salvador, whether it’s GE or Conagra or the military-industrial complex, you’re in the same system,” he told a group of nearly 100 farmers after a farm-policy debate in Ames. “Does it make any difference if you’re black or white? If you let that get put between you, you can never deal with this complex. We can’t let race, religion, or a few pennies stop us from dealing with billions. A few pennies more for a loaf of bread or ice cream is irrelevant to people who’ve got a job.”

“I like him,” a middle-aged farm woman said to nobody in particular, a tone of pleased astonishment in her voice.

Simon says he wants a government that cares. He wants better education, long-term care for the elderly, and jobs for the unemployed. There’s no doubt that he does care about the less fortunate, but he also argues that it is in the interests of social productivity not only to care for but also to invest in people. Jackson, who obviously shares such compassion, ups the ante, arguing for a national health service, for example.

More strikingly, Jackson emphasizes spreading not just services or even wealth, but power. Speaking to a group of 200 farm and urban women supporters in Des Moines–most of them white, most of them middle-aged–he said that in recent debates none of his fellow Democrats gave conservative responses to questions of domestic priorities. “They were liberal answers,” Jackson said. “They were not liberated. Beyond liberalism and doing things for poor people, there is liberation and people doing things for themselves. Each candidate said, ‘I’ll give you a tricycle, a job, day care, medical care.’ What’s fundamental is not programs for the rejected. What’s important is for them to be empowered to generate programs for themselves. Am I my brother’s keeper? No, I am not my brother or sister’s keeper. I am my brother or sister’s brother, and that’s enough. Everything else flows from respect. . . . If people have their share of power, they will have their share of programs.”

Jackson is quick to join picket lines (even when it means siding with white strikers against a largely black force of strikebreakers), to protest with workers at shut-down factories, and to march with demonstrators against apartheid, against aid to the Nicaraguan contras, and for greater government action against AIDS. But he has never been elected to any office, and even as a movement leader has consistently failed to build effective organizations or even administer well the organizations he has established. Inevitably the organizations–from Operation PUSH to the Rainbow Coalition–are subordinated to the demands of supporting Jackson, the political celebrity, agitator, and educator.

Simon, by contrast, is the veteran legislator–14 years in the Illinois legislature, 4 years as lieutenant governor, 14 years in the House of Representatives, and senator since his upset defeat of Republican Charles Percy in 1984. Over the years Simon has voted for some conservative clinkers–for example, the balanced budget amendment, the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings automatic budget slashing legislation, the Hyde amendment to ban abortion funds, and a subminimum wage for teenagers. But he has generally voted quite liberally, as reflected in various ratings from the low 80s to 100 percent “right” from such groups as the American Civil Liberties Union, the AFL-CIO, Americans for Democratic Action, the Consumers Federation of America, and the League of Conservation Voters. Unlike Jackson, he has not made himself part of a political movement or exercised extraparliamentary leadership, except in his early newspapering days. But he did show courage, and an ability to exert influence, with his early support for civil rights in southern Illinois, where the political culture is closer to that of the border states than to the north.

Simon and Jackson are poles apart on the Middle East. Jackson is the only Democrat to insist that a Palestinian homeland is essential for Israeli security and Middle Eastern peace. Simon has been a zealous defender of Israel, whether its government has been of the right or left. He has supported moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, an act that would give the U.S. stamp of approval to Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Last year he strongly endorsed Republican initiatives to shut down Palestinian information offices in New York and Washington on the grounds that the PLO had claimed responsibility for killing an American.

Simon has long argued that diplomatic and cultural exchanges are essential for understanding and dealing with nations considered hostile to the U.S. In 1984 Charles Percy attacked him for one very polite and tactically flattering letter to Ayatollah Khomeini, which Simon correctly defended as legitimate diplomacy. But Simon’s sentiments don’t extend to the Palestinians. Consequently he has received substantial funding from pro-Israel sources; such funding was critical in his campaign against Percy, whom he painted as insufficiently supportive of Israel.

“We send half our foreign aid and our latest weapons, but they cannot bring security to Israel,” Jackson said in an interview, driving through northwestern Iowa. “Israeli security is inextricably bound to Palestinian justice. We did a marvelous thing by helping to found and then sustain Israel. We brought them a great measure of security by bringing them to Camp David and getting Egypt and Israel on the course of mutual recognition. We must now get Israel and Palestinians on a mutual recognition course and away from a mutual destruction course. Unless we do that, Israel faces an insurmountable burden of occupation, and occupation costs emotionally, politically, economically, and militarily.”

Simon argues that the next step must be for Israel, Jordan, and Palestinian representatives to talk. But he does not advocate a separate Palestinian state. And he emphatically rejects including in these talks any representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization, even though he acknowledges they are the most popular Palestinian group and that now even non-PLO leaders are being arrested by Israeli authorities. “At some point the PLO will be brought in,” he said, “but I don’t think that’s going to be for a while.” Asked if he would be capable of leaning on Israel to negotiate, he insisted, “I have been willing to criticize Israel for sale of weapons to South Africa. I do not hesitate to criticize our friends when I think they’re wrong. But I am a strong supporter of Israel.”

But the question Jackson poses, as few U.S. politicians have, is whether support for Israeli security and democracy within Isreal means ignoring Palestinian rights and unswervingly supporting any Israeli government. Unfortunately, the well-publicized tension between Jackson and American Jews has undercut his effectiveness as an advocate of a new outlook on the Middle East.

Simon’s pantheon of readily invoked heroes includes Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Hubert Humphrey (rarely John Kennedy, nearly every younger Democratic candidate’s implicit hero). His image, his issues (such as including long-term care for the aged under Medicare), his emphasis on Democratic tradition, and his icons all pitch Simon well to older voters. And Iowa’s caucus goers tend to be older than average. If Simon comes out of Iowa with a strong showing, the question will be whether he can appeal to independents, to the politically marginal who need a strong emotional charge to get involved, and to younger voters, even if he has demonstrated ability to reach some Republicans.

Jackson’s problems may be partly the reverse. In the November CBS/New York Times poll (before Hart’s reentry), Jackson was the front-runner, the only Democratic candidate with a nationwide rather than regional base of support. His appeal is mainly to younger voters, a group the Democrats lost to Reagan. Half of Democratic primary voters under 30 and a majority of those under 45 who expressed a firm preference in that poll were for Jackson. But his support falls off with older voters. Jackson had as much of the white Democratic vote nationwide as Simon and Dukakis, much more than the others. Yet Jackson all along has had high (though declining) negative impressions. And half of all likely Democratic primary voters didn’t think he had enough experience to be president.

Paul Simon is comfortable to be with–like an old shoe, suggests union lobbyist George Brown–and that may be his strength and weakness. He rarely excites people, but his pollster, Paul Maslin, says that people generally find him qualified, experienced, honest, and capable of handling presidential issues, a man who both “cares about us” and “stands up for his beliefs.” His reverse charisma worked for a while. “The bow tie and looking funny was enough to get people looking at him, but it doesn’t go very far,” mused dairy farmer Dixon Terry, a leader of the Iowa Farm Unity Coalition, who respects Simon’s farm-policy positions.

But Simon has always been reluctant to play to the anger in voters or to appear a “populist” in his politics or his style. He fears demagoguery (and certainly Gephardt’s successful use of a gimmicky, superficial populism legitimates his worries). But holding back could cost Simon a great deal. “Candidates and staffers realize there’s a populist message going up against the big boys that has appeal to voters,” Terry said. “That’s the kind of approach I think it’s going to take to defeat the Republicans.” It would be a shame if Simon were knocked out of the race by Gephardt’s contrived populism simply because Simon plays his cards so cautiously, in both style and substance.

At a meeting of the Davenport Poor People’s Campaign, Simon was as tough on “the big boys” as he usually gets, but even then he was polite and civil. In a small meeting hall crammed with 125 people–mainly white, though the hall was in the Progressive Baptist Church in a largely black neighborhood–Simon responded to hard-hitting opening remarks by an old friend of his and a former comrade of Martin Luther King, the Reverend Joseph Lowery.

“The fundamental premise about which Reverend Lowery spoke is correct,” Simon said, after a tongue-in-cheek compliment from a Lutheran minister’s son on Lowery’s “Methodist” preaching style. “The fundamental question is not money, but values. Do we pander to whims of the rich and powerful or help those who need help?” Simon’s jobs program, supported by University of Chicago sociologist William Julius Wilson, author of The Truly Disadvantaged, is not a substitute for private-sector jobs, he said. “But if people fall through the cracks, I’m not willing to say you go on the refuse pile of society.” Besides boosting people’s income before they are forced onto welfare or into deep poverty, the plan would give many “a spark of hope, a feeling they’re doing something. Let’s do what our friends in Japan are doing. Let’s invest in people.”

Simon related to his church-hall audience one of the many homey, personal anecdotes he’s used in this campaign: On a radio talk show on WMAQ in Chicago, he said, a man called him and asked, “You know why I’m out of work, don’t you?” No, Simon replied. “The blacks are getting all the jobs,” the caller responded. There were groans from the Iowa audience.

Simon continued: “Whenever we tolerate the level of unemployment we do–and don’t be fooled by the statistics, the real unemployment rate is 9 percent, not 5 or 6 percent–we pit race against race, age against age, sex against sex, ethnic group against ethnic group. If we had enough jobs, we wouldn’t be doing that.”

Simon then ticked off responses to many of the challenges Lowery had issued to candidates. He had worked hard against apartheid in South Africa. He favored requiring all employers to provide health insurance and proposed that the federal government pick up all health-care costs exceeding one-fifth of a family’s income. He thought the government could encourage construction of low-income housing at little cost by working with nonprofit corporations.

“This administration has inflicted a mind-set on us,” he said in a standard finale, “that you can’t invest in education, housing, jobs. You can’t do this or that. I want you and I to work together on those dreams and to fight for those dreams.”

That willingness to dream, to be unafraid of the “big spender” label, to guarantee jobs–that was what distinguished him from the other candidates, with the partial exception of Jackson, Simon told the crowd during a question period. Asked what he would do about corporate America, he said, “We have to give tax incentives to companies that do research and create jobs and take away tax incentives for gobbling each other up. There should be no tax incentives for corporations to send investment overseas.”

It was the jobs program and the final comments on corporations, sentiments that Simon often downplays, that won over retired Oscar Mayer mechanic Allan Rash. Rash liked Gephardt’s attacks on big business greed and thought Jackson “has a lot of good things to say–but I’m not sure if that would be a wasted vote,” he calculated. “Simon has a better chance.”

Simon’s presumed “electability,” his experience, and his liberal views win him support if not rapt enthusiasm. Mike Judge, a bitter ex-farmer forced into bankruptcy and now working as a union carpenter, said after a farm policy debate, “I’m going to support Simon as a union man and as a farmer. He hasn’t got a lot of garbage on his tail. He’s from the senate and can deal with the senate. We haven’t had a good time with governors. I hope the union backs Simon. I can’t afford another loser.”

Floyd Martin, president of the Iowa state council of the Machinists union, noted that “Jesse Jackson is saying what the people want to hear, but it just isn’t there for him because of the way people are in Iowa. I think people like his message–and who wouldn’t among people who work for a living? But in the state of Iowa [the hesitation to support him] is because of color.” So the Machinists will overwhelmingly support Simon, “the top candidate for the working class of people,” Martin said. “He will try to turn this country around a little bit, provide jobs, medicare for the elderly.”

Jackson’s color is an unavoidable issue. It is present partly in people’s feelings about him and about blacks in general, but it is more overtly present in the question about the rest of the country and “electability”: I may not be racist, but are the rest of my fellow Americans ready to vote for a black?

Iowans have been struggling with both dimensions of the issue. After listening to Jackson talk to students and some community folks at the tiny Estherville High School, construction worker Paul Moffitt, 45, paused in the hallway, a Garst seed cap perched on his head, and talked about Jackson. “I was really impressed,” he said. “I agree with a lot of his views on creating jobs, dealing with the economy, on fuel assistance. But I haven’t made up my mind. He could win if people could accept him.” What do you think the reaction would be to Jackson if he were white? I asked. “Pretty much overwhelming,” Moffitt said. “He’d rank up there with the leaders of the nation. He could be a great president, but it’s hard for people to accept a black as president.”

Jackson, surrounded by his phalanx of Secret Service agents, black and white, male and female, headed toward the schoolhouse door. A little girl approached timidly. “I’ve always wanted to meet you,” she said, a piece of paper in her hand for an autograph. “You ought to at least hug me then,” Jackson said, reaching down to give the delighted girl a warm embrace.

Toward the end of the day, en route to an airport for a late-night flight to Minnesota, Jackson mused about the race issue. “People are grappling with it, and they’re doing it in a nonhostile atmosphere,” he said. “They’re coming to grips with it in the most rational process conceivable, dealing with it step by step.”

Jackson has changed since his last campaign. I recall pressing him in New Hampshire in 1984 about what message he had for the white, middle-aged steelworker. He talked about the worker’s wife, children, community, and nearly everything else, but that white male worker himself did not seem fully a part of Jackson’s mental rainbow. Since then, however, Jackson has been welcomed with open arms on the picket lines of steelworkers, paper workers, meat packers, and many other predominantly white work forces. He has protested plant closings, has stood with farmers in redneck Missouri to protest farm foreclosures, and was startled a year ago in the tiny town of Greenfield, Iowa, when 600 to 800 people packed a local church to hear him instead of watching the Super Bowl. He made Greenfield his campaign headquarters.

Just as mainstream white America’s “comfort level” with Jackson has risen (to use his phrase), his own comfort level with whites, and his understanding of what they have in common with the majority of blacks, has grown. People who have watched Jackson for many years in Chicago might not recognize him in Iowa. While he often slips into old habits and ideas back on his home turf, he is clearly at his best, his most inclusive, when forced to address a wider audience.

Whether or not he does well in the caucuses, Jackson will have influenced the campaign heavily. His opponents in the race regularly adopt his lines, and when debate audiences go wild in response to one of his statements, the other candidates often pick up his themes too. And Jackson is influencing voters as well as politicians. “I almost never hear any Democrat say anything negative about Jackson,” farm leader Dixon Terry said. “He articulates issues and stirs the emotions unlike any other. He has people’s heart, but they still wonder. I really think Iowa will never be the same culturally and politically. He’s had a major impact on the state like no other politician. To see what’s happening with Jackson here and to see how people have been forced to change their thinking is something that goes way beyond one election.”

Many are making the leap over their hesitations. “He’s the only guy who addresses issues head on,” said Mitchell Albers, an official of the meat packer’s union in Cherokee and an ex-Hart supporter. “He doesn’t mess around or mince words. He doesn’t worry about looking presidential, hemming or hawing. To heck with electability, I’m going with the guy who tells it like it is.”

Stan Kading, a grain farmer from southwest Iowa who with his wife has established relationships with poor Nicaraguan farmers threatened by the contras, said he was supporting Jackson “primarily because of where he stands on all the issues, how he represents what I consider the average American. If you shut your eyes and don’t think about race, he’s the best candidate. A lot of people don’t think he has a chance because he’s black, but I’d rather go with the candidate I think is best, because race really doesn’t matter to me.”

Later that evening a standing-room-only crowd of about 150 people gathered in the basement of the Tangny Hotel in tiny Spencer, Iowa, braving minus-20-degree cold and skipping a televised Iowa Hawkeyes basketball game, a special event on most Iowa calendars. Jackson tried to address the hesitations felt by people who say “I like Jesse Jackson, but . . .” Meeting the race and electability issues head on, he’s trying to move them, as he says, from “Jesse Jackson, but . . .” to “Jesse Jackson, therefore.”

In the Constitution, Jackson told his audience, only white male landowners were politically enfranchised, and “everyone else was behind the ‘but.'” But the country kept expanding the meaning of democracy, abolishing slavery, granting women the vote, and overcoming the “bad habit” of anti-Catholic prejudice by electing John Kennedy.

“Here I am before you tonight in Spencer,” Jackson said, “challenging you to move from ‘but’ to ‘therefore.’ In 1984 we added two million new voters, organized more Democrats than any Democrat alive. The same coalition that beat [Supreme Court nominee Robert] Bork can raise the minimum wage, support collective bargaining, afford pregnancy leaves for women, raise the quality of education.”

Can he do the job? Jackson answered that he has helped mediate conflict–fire fighters on strike in Chicago, teachers in Saint Louis, nurses in Rochester. He has “met more heads of state than anyone running, not at their funerals but when they were alive,” he quipped, reciting his success in returning a downed U.S. pilot from Syria, his protests on behalf of Soviet Jews to Gorbachev, his taking Castro to church for the first time in decades. “Our future in Latin America is not supporting 15,000 contras but exporting grain, medicine, and tractors to 400 million customers,” he insisted. He has motivated children, built coalitions of workers and farmers, and “if the issue is maximizing resources, I’ve done the most with the least,” he said.

What he has mostly done in recent months is conduct one of the most effective traveling teach-ins on American politics and economics anyone has ever mounted. His strength, in evidence in the Spencer speech, is in formulating new ideas–not in the sense of Gary Hart’s often vague policy proposals, but new ways for most people to view their world. On the budget: “It’s not people with Alzheimer’s disease or children going to college that got us into the hole,” so why should they have to pay for getting out? Let the people invited to the Reagan party for the past seven years pay the bill, he says frequently, not those who were never sent an invitation. On the economy and the need for a “worker bill of rights”: “Nothing is wrong with the American worker. Something is wrong with the formula” for employing them. On U.S. foreign and military policy: “We are militarily strong. It’s the policy that’s weak.” On social policy: “It makes more sense to invest in day care and child care than welfare and jail care.”

Some of the questions from the Spencer audience were probing, the Iowans living up to their reputation as conscientious first screeners of the presidential parade. What about Jackson’s relationship with Louis Farrakhan? “He has rights and should have due process,” Jackson said. “His rights should end where others’ rights begin.” Another questioner was troubled about the implications for church and state of electing a minister. Jackson affirmed the “very separate” spheres of religion and government and the rule of Constitutional law, but he mused, “The presidency should not be denied to anyone, whether a first-rate minister or a B-grade actor.” Earlier he had addressed worries about his lack of governmental experience, arguing that being president was a matter of setting priorities, exercising leadership, and putting together the right team, “not like being a pilot of a 747.”

“I want you to move from ‘I like the way he talks, I like his ideas, I like his courage, and I like the way he goes against the odds, the way he reminds me of myself, but. . . ,'” Jackson appealed. “Move from ‘but’ to ‘therefore.'”

As he moved out of the hall, shaking hands, he stopped to chat with the mayor, who said he liked what Jackson had to say. Can I count on your support? “Well, I’m a Republican,” he said. With a big smile the Reverend Jackson laid his hands on the Republican’s head and called out “Heal!” The mayor laughed, and as Jackson left he said, “Well, maybe I could vote for him.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marc PoKempner.