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Democrats Disdainful of Hart : In Iowa, Simon’s the One With Bow Ties That Bind

Times Staff Writer

Gary Hart may have reemerged as the front-runner in polls of the Democratic presidential race, but that fact hasn’t impressed too many folks here.

Not that they don’t love a winner. It’s just that a good number of them already think the man-on-the-move wears a bow tie.

For the Democratic caucus-goers in this precinct, who are the subject of a series of Times articles leading up to the Feb. 8 caucuses, a poll a month ago seems to have more meaning. In that survey by the Des Moines Register, Illinois Sen. Paul Simon was anointed Iowa’s front-runner of the moment.

The earlier poll acted as an elixir, giving courage to reluctant admirers and easing doubts about whether anyone else really liked this funny-looking man and his much-ridiculed neckwear. And the latest poll by the Register, which shows Hart in front, has done little to derail their affection.

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Unlike Simon, Hart has never been a strong favorite among these caucus-goers. So they tended to dismiss his lead as evidence of mere “name-recognition.” They uniformly said they would not not support him. In fact, many giggled or snickered when they learned of his announcement. They don’t take him seriously any more.

“I noticed he announced in New Hampshire, not Iowa,” said Patricia Umbarger, 57, a homemaker, chuckling to herself. “He must think we Midwesterners are more strait-laced.”

“I’m really just kind of appalled at the audacity. I guess he has a right to re-enter, but I think it’s dumb. I think he’s on an ego trip,” said Karen Silverberg, 52, a feminist activist who plans to stand up for a candidate in the Newton Township caucus.

It may be dangerous to extrapolate the sentiments expressed in Newton to Iowa in general. The intense publicity about Hart’s relationship with a Miami model last spring, which led him to quit the race, and the burst of attention when he re-entered last week, means that many Democrats know him fairly well and the polls almost certainly are finding genuine Hart supporters.

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Illustrates a Paradox

But the dual effect of the Register polls one month apart illustrates a paradox: one poll announcing a so-called front-runner can cement resentment, while another doing the same thing can confirm a candidate’s stature and thus bring out more supporters.

So in Newton, despite the diversion of Gary Hart, the story is still Paul Simon.

Five days after the first poll, he looked and sounded the same, but the perception of his candidacy was different. He had the momentum--the big crowds, the media attention, the rush of endorsements. It seemed, suddenly, that he had the feel of a winner, his candidacy a glow strong enough to overcome earlier reservations about whether his bow tie implied eccentricity, whether in fact he looked presidential enough.

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When he arrived for a luncheon at a small restaurant here, the room was jammed with expectant, curious, excited voters.

By the time he left, many had declared themselves in his camp.

Working the room, Simon approached Jasper County Auditor and Election Commissioner Linda Gifford. “I’ve been hearing very good things about you,” the candidate cooed.

In fact, Simon’s campaign had been courting the elected county official for weeks. Gifford liked Simon, but she had thought him too homely to win a national contest. Besides, she was too busy with her job to get involved in a campaign.

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Yet within an hour, Gifford had joined his campaign, and many of her neighbors who had been undecided moved into or nearer to the candidate’s camp.

“I’ve been leaning toward him for quite a while so I made it official. . . ,” said Gifford, 45, looking flushed and pleased at having made up her mind. “We can dream. He is someone who can dream and lets us dream with him.”

The poll helped her turn the corner. “I’ve got to say it did influence me because my main concern was his electability,” she said later.

Has Moved Up

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Gifford is one of 10 Democratic caucus attendees whose views and activities The Times is monitoring. Most of these 10 say they either favor Simon strongly or he is among their top choices. They had liked him previously. Now, he has moved up a few notches.

Most caution that their opinions may change. The caucuses are still more than a month away, and the poll that put Simon in first place was hardly decisive. It covered such a small sample that the margin of error could mean Simon in fact was only in third place.

But Simon intrigues them. They describe him as an intellectual. They are impressed that he has written books. Most are surprised to learn he did not graduate from college. They say he is concerned about social issues and yet conservative on spending. Most at this stage are only mildly troubled that his positions might be inconsistent.

Silverberg attended the Simon luncheon, too. A week earlier, she had been unable to decide between Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis and Simon. She had met Simon the prior month at the Iowa Women’s Political Caucus and had later remarked on his size. “He is really quite short,” she said.

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But at the crowded luncheon, the 5-foot-8 Illinois senator seemed to grow in stature.

“I would say Simon probably has the upper edge. . . ,” she said afterward. “One of the things I watch for and ask myself is, ‘How will the rest of the country react to this man?’ I think older Americans get to the polls more. . . . This man may have a lot of appeal to middle-aged and older voters. He looks very stable and solid.”

Silverberg’s commitment to Simon on this day was instructive. After declaring him her first choice, she paused and laughed.

“Of course I haven’t seen Dukakis for a while,” she said.

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A week earlier, Mary Lee Rusk, 62, another Democrat in Newton Township, figured Dukakis was probably her first choice. She had met him during a campaign stop in Newton in October and asked him his position on health care for the elderly. An aide had mailed her papers, called to see if she got them and then called again and offered her and her husband, Forrest, free tickets to a Democratic fund-raising dinner.

The advertising saleswoman was grateful. Seated in the Dukakis section at the fund-raiser, she waved a white pompon for the Massachusetts governor. Her husband, seated beside her, chanted: “We want Mike. We want Mike. Duke. Duke. Duke.” A sea of Dukakis signs and banners bobbed up and down around them.

More Torn Than Ever

But she had always liked Simon too, and now, at the luncheon, he was the front-runner and she had met him. And now, she was more torn than ever.

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“I believe they are tied,” she said.

She pointed out that Simon had the advantage of being a Midwesterner. She had not previously objected to Dukakis’ Eastern origins, but now she was looking for a reason to explain her growing attachment to Simon.

“It’s like any kind of experience,” she said. “Until you have had the measles, you don’t know what the measles are like. Well, until you’ve lived in the Midwest and been through the Midwest problems, you’ve heard about them but you probably don’t really appreciate them.”

Patricia and Jack Umbarger, who also attended the luncheon, agree that Simon’s Midwest roots are an advantage. Jack Umbarger has liked Simon ever since the first presidential debate in Houston last summer. Even before the candidate’s rise in the polls, Umbarger had declared himself solidly in the Illinois senator’s corner.

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“I have a lot more confidence in someone who has Midwestern values than in someone from the East,” said Jack Umbarger, 56, a sales manager. “I distrust Southern politicians . . . . Eastern politicians I distrust passionately. I think everybody around here feels that Simon is very sincere, he’s a man you can trust, and he’s a man who is going to do what is right for America.”

Patricia Umbarger is more concerned than her husband that she pick a candidate who can win. But Simon now is her tentative first choice, and she brushes aside doubts that the rest of the country might not like him.

She remembers well that Jimmy Carter was a long-shot candidate until Iowa launched him, and now she thinks the state can do the same for Simon.

“Iowa can make him.”

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For Rosemary Hartschen, Simon’s favorable poll rating reinforced her own impression of him as “real honest and down-to-earth.”

“I think we need one of the ones who are the highest in the polls,” said the 49-year-old substitute teacher. “Then at least we know he has some support to start with.”

Of course Simon’s rise came at his rivals’ expense, mostly that of Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt. But Wray Hartschen, 54, Rosemary’s husband and a strong Gephardt supporter, is not yet fretting. The Maytag worker said campaign organizers will not even begin to make their major push until January.

Lee and Randa Walker also think it’s too early to get carried away by Simon. Neither was a big Simon fan before the candidate’s change in fortunes, and now the biggest movement in the Walker household seems to be that Lee Walker has stopped mispronouncing his name as “Simonton.”

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But just because Lee Walker knows the candidate’s name does not mean he is any more enthusiastic.

“I like Simon, but I’ve had four years of economics and I haven’t figured out yet how you can spend all that money and not raise taxes . . .” said the 37-year-old attorney. “He is in favor of a balanced budget and increased social spending, and somewhere something has to give. Where are you going to take it? Are you going to take it from defense?”

Randa Walker, 37, a school teacher who has taken a leave of absence to help out at her husband’s law firm, remains a strong Jesse Jackson supporter. She recently began making telephone calls on behalf of Jackson, and she believes the Simon euphoria may now be fading.

‘Not So Sure’

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“A whole bunch of the people say, ‘Well, we were leaning toward Simon, but now we’re not so sure,’ ” Walker said.

Most of the other Democratic presidential candidates had already enjoyed brief, heady stints as Iowa’s front-runner, only to be disillusioned when the infatuation faded, the newness wore off and other faces began to appeal.

The latest poll showing Hart in front may be just a temporary setback for Simon. Or maybe it’s the familiar story of the Iowa front-runner. But in Randa Walker’s opinion: “Simon has peaked.”


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