DES MOINES, Iowa - Make no mistake, Missouri Congressman Richard Gephardt loves pork.
It's a good thing his wife, Jane, understands his fixation. To celebrate their 37th wedding anniversary last week, he brought her here to the Iowa state fair. She got a chop and some baked beans at a concession run by the Iowa pork producers.
“I told her I'd get her some good food,” though the longtime congressman now running for president sheepishly acknowledges he didn't say exactly where.
The other white meat, preferably served on a stick, Mr. Gephardt said, “is the best thing. It's to die for. I've been thinking about this all day.”
Not just any pork. “It must be Iowa pork.”
Asked if New Hampshire pork was as sweet a meat, Mr. Gephardt, who is doing better in public opinion polls here than there, refused to commit: “Everyone has their own deal.”
Such are the proclamations of a man stumping for support under searing sun and drenching humidity five months before Iowans gather to caucus, debate, and select their favorite candidate for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. The 11-day run of the fair here is an all-but-required campaign event for the eight men and one woman seeking the party's backing. The only one not to make an appearance was the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York City, who fares poorly in the Iowa polls.
Other more serious events were scheduled to coincide with the fair, including a weighty forum on health care hosted at Drake University here by Gov. Tom Vilsack, and an in-depth grilling of the candidates on health care and trade at the annual convention of the Iowa Federation of Labor, meeting last week in Waterloo.
While Mr. Gephardt avoided talk of policy proposals as he walked the midway, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean was altogether different. In a two-minute rapid-fire exchange - barely inside the fair's front gate - with Raedean Mease, an emergency medical technician from Truro, Iowa, Mr. Dean, a physician by trade, squared up his stance, locked his bright blue eyes on hers, and rattled off positions on gun control, prescription drugs, and health-care insurance for the poor as if he were taking an oral exam back in medical school.
Bounding down the main avenue of the fair, another man approached the former governor:
“Mr. Dean, I am so glad you are standing up and defining what it means to be a Democrat,” said Mike Wilson, a retiree from Des Moines. “I am so sick and tired of conservatives defining who we are. I'm with you all the way.”
The candidate digested the compliment with little more than a thank you, his mouth crammed with the remains of a one pound - two patties - hamburger.
Forget pork. Mr. Dean has found the beef.
And Iowans have found him. Unknown to many just a few months ago, polls show he has moved into what political insiders here call “the top tier” of candidates, along with Mr. Gephardt and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, who opted for a corn dog during his visit to the fairgrounds.
The horde of reporters following his every move reflects that Mr. Dean is the newest, hottest thing in presidential politics.
As they stump their way across the state, the candidates regularly take verbal swipes at President Bush, but it is more muted here. Instead, much of their time is spent talking about ideas to pay for health-care insurance, which has emerged as a major issue.
The candidates said they see it as important for a key Democratic Party constituency - organized labor - because those workers have been pressured to retreat on benefits as medical insurance costs have risen. They all propose aggressive government action to provide coverage as a way to remove health-care benefits from the arena of collective bargaining with employers.
Mr. Gephardt melds the economy and health care together in a proposal to provide universal coverage, one of three in the field - Cleveland Congressman Dennis Kucinich and former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun are the others - with a plan that would cover everyone, though the others come close.
“We are not going to solve the economic problem in this country until we solve the health care problem,” Mr. Gephardt told those at the governor's forum. We have got to get rid of the Bush tax cuts and help every family in this country with their health care.”
He explains that the issue is personal for him - though the explanation is unnecessary for anyone who can see his intense facial expression as he talks about it - because his son was diagnosed with cancer at age 2, and survived only because they had insurance that covered experimental drug treatments. He tells crowds that he remembers sitting in waiting rooms with the parents of other cancer patients who were not so lucky.
“We were all terrified that our child would not make it,” he said. “But if you want to see real terror, just look into the eyes of a parent who doesn't know where the money is going to come from for the next chemotherapy treatment.”
It is, he said, “immoral to have all this wonderful technology coming out [in the field of medicine], and have 40 to 60 million Americans unable to access it.”
“As president, I intend to make this one of the great causes,” said Mr. Kucinich. “We're already paying for universal health care and not getting it" because the treatment costs incurred by those who cannot pay are absorbed by those who can. So, he said, the government might as well cover everyone.
“We have to move to national health care. It's cheaper because you take the profit out of it,” the congressman said.
“We don't have a health-care crisis in America. We have the best health care in the world. What we do not have is a rational way of paying for it,” said Ms. Moseley-Braun. “The only real solution to this problem is not to tinker with a broken industry,” she said. “We cannot stick with it at this point, but rather, we need a single-payer, universal health care to make sure we have quality health care for everyone.”
Like many Democrats in the race, Mr. Kerry would roll back some of the Bush tax cuts to pay for his health care proposal, a collection of government subsidies for private insurance and tax breaks for employers who provide coverage.
“America has a choice,” he said. “Tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, or health care for all Americans.”
He said he would also propose incentives to move medical record keeping into the computer age, bringing an end to the need for patients to fill out endless forms on their medical history, perhaps replacing it with a person's history stored on a “smart card” resembling those used in automatic teller machines.
“Doctors and nurses did not go into the profession in order to push paper around,” Mr. Kerry said, bragging that his plan is practical because insurance companies and health maintenance organizations have no reason to oppose it.
“We have the opportunity to get to 96.5 percent coverage [of the American population] without the resistance of the industry,” he said at Governor Vilsack's conference.
“I would go to the Congress and ask for a repeal of the Bush tax cuts,” redirecting that money “to those at the lower end of the income scale,” said Florida Sen. Bob Graham at the labor conference.
Saying he learned a lesson from President Clinton's disastrous efforts to revolutionize American health care in one massive leap, Mr. Graham said he would move slower.
“My proposal is to increase access to health care on a step-by-step basis,” starting with children, the working poor, and early retirees.
Mr. Dean said that, when it comes to providing citizens with health care, “I have a big advantage here because I have already done it” in Vermont.
Like other candidates he would expand the existing Medicaid program to cover all children, and would then offer tax benefits to companies who offered insurance to their workers.
"We'll make health coverage a national birthright, just like education,” said John Edwards, the senator from North Carolina, outlining a plan that would require all to have health insurance, just as all motorists must have liability auto insurance. The government, he said, would subsidize those who could not afford it, while others would get “a significant tax credit.”
Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman didn't mention health care in a 15-minute "political soapbox" speech at the fair on Friday, his first appearance in Iowa last week. When asked about it by Mike Murillo, a self-proclaimed “activist” from West Des Moines, the former vice presidential candidates said that the “goal has to be that every American has health coverage. We will not get there all at once,” he said. “We have to do it in steps, and the first step should be to insure the 9 million children without coverage.”
Winning the Democratic Party nomination for president gets you only partly down the road to the White House, a fact that Mr. Kerry acknowledged.
“The question for all of us is, who can beat George Bush,” he said as he publicly pondered presidential politics in a post-September 11 world. “I will make it clear that the flag of the United States of America and patriotism don't belong to any party, they don't belong to any president, they don't belong, certainly, to any ideology.”
For those Democrats who want Mr. Bush's job, that idea, - not pork on a stick, not humongous hamburgers, cotton candy or lemonade - may have been the most important item on sale last week at the Iowa state fair.41.58979 -93.61566