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Liberal And Proud Of It: Iowa's 'Prairie Populist

George Bush's '92 campaign team fears Mario Cuomo, respects Bill Clinton and is wary of Doug Wilder. But they would just love to run against Tom Harkin. An unabashed liberal, an advocate of public-works spending, a man who opposed the use of force against Iraq-candidates don't come any more vulnerable than that. The Iowa senator perfectly fits the profile of a Democratic loser: someone who can stir the party faithful in the primaries and provide an easy target for Bush in November.

That's how one line of analysis goes. But anyone who has dealt with Harkin knows the self-described "prairie populist" can't be dismissed so easily. In a Democratic Party paralyzed by its own angst, Harkin stands out as confident and unafraid. Mostly on the strength of his fiery rhetoric, Harkin has been attracting growing notice. "He went from a joke to a serious player in about a week and a half," says political analyst Charles Cook. Harkin is likely to announce his candidacy Sept. 15 in Iowa. And if the Bush people are aching to take a crack at him, Harkin is also raring for the fight. "They've never come up against anybody like me," he told NEWSWEEK. "I know how to run against Republicans. Never defend and always attack. And I fight on my territory, never theirs."

Harkin is a street-fighting man. He is the first Democratic senator in Iowa ever to win re-election to a second term. Iowans got their first taste of him in 1972, when the young poverty lawyer challenged William Scherle, a Republican congressman who represented a conservative rural district in the state's southwest corner. Scherle wouldn't debate his opponent, or even tolerate joint appearances with the 32-year-old upstart. So, four days before the election, Harkin showed up in an auditorium where Scherle was speaking. According to a Des Moines Register account, Harkin jumped onto the stage. "Excuse me, Bill, I'd like to introduce myself," Harkin said as he shook hands with the visibly flustered incumbent. "You're using a pack of lies."

Harkin lost that election but set the tone for his political career. When his pro-choice views were attacked, he went before Roman Catholic groups and called himself "the true pro-life candidate," based on his opposition to the death penalty. As the son of a coal miner who suffered from black-lung disease, Harkin is a credible voice for the little guy. He attended college on an ROTC scholarship and delights in declaring, "Someone like me can sit next to a Rockefeller in the U.S. Senate." When West Virginia Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV dropped out of the race two weeks ago, he called Harkin and joked, "Tom, you've intimidated me out of this thing." Harkin's class-warfare approach is likely to get under the thin skin of two other patricians he pointedly refers to by their full names: George Herbert Walker Bush and J. Danforth Quayle.

Harkin's hero is Harry Truman, whose straight-talking style won America's trust. Earlier this year Harkin shocked some stiff-necked Iowans by telling a reporter that Bush's Persian Gulf policy was like "juvenile lovemaking: too quick to get in and to get out." A month later he offended folks again by shouting his one-word critique of the Bush administration: "Bullshit!" His bluntness can be amusing, not just offensive. "I see I'm the 17th speaker you all have had here," he told one audience recently. "I feel like Elizabeth Taylor's seventh husband on her wedding night: I know what I'm supposed to do, I'm just not sure I can make it interesting."

If nice guys finish last, Harkin doesn't have to worry. Unlike most politicians, who are surrounded by sycophants Harkin is a loner with a reputation as an s.o.b. Even his friends call him "ruthless," an adjective that reflects the anger that always seems just beneath the surface. He is respected in the Senate for his drive and commitment; he is not liked. "This isn't a popularity contest," says Iowa Democratic chair John Roehrick, echoing a line Harkin associates use with telling frequency when discussing Harkin's personality. "To he competent you don't have to be liked. You have to do the job."

Harkin's defiance extends to foreign-policy and defense issues. He voted against the use-of-force authorization in the Persian Gulf and infuriated many in his own party by insisting Congress not duck the issue. It has become axiomatic that any Democrat who opposed the gulf war will be unable to present himself as a credible commander in chief. Harkin, who spent more than eight years in the military and flew Navy jets during the Vietnam War (he never saw combat), refuses to be defensive on the subject. In the Senate Harkin is best known for cosponsoring the Americans With Disabilities Act, legislation that has been likened to a civil-rights bill for the disabled. He has long championed issues relating to the disabled and is fluent in sign language.

That particular interest stems from his own hardscrabble upbringing. He moves audiences to tears with the ordeal of his deaf brother, Frank, an engineer who, after 23 years as a member of the United Auto Workers, was replaced by a scab. "Do you know where a 54-year-old deaf man finds a job? ... Cleaning toilets at a shopping mall at night. Minimum wage. No health benefits. No retirement ... That's what's happening in America today," Harkin declares in his standard speech. (In fact, Frank Harkin, with the help of his brother, then a congressman, found work sorting mail with the Postal Service; he is now retired and collecting a pension.)

Some Democratic strategists worry that Harkin's slashing attacks on the president could obscure the party's more important mission of offering voters an alternative vision. "It's not enough to just beat the crap out of Bush," says a Democratic consultant. And after losing four of the last five presidential elections, many Democrats are wary of Harkin's old-time religion-and of a man who boasts about receiving more money from organized labor in his re-election campaign last year than any other senator in history. "He is taking the party backwards," says Bruce Reed, policy director of the Democratic Leadership Council, a centrist group that wants to move the party away from big government spending programs. "He wants to help poor people, but how?" asks Virginia Governor Wilder, who is also likely to make a presidential run. "Where's the money going to come from?" With Jesse Jackson expected to sign a television talk-show contract and New York Governor Cuomo claiming lack of interest, Harkin, 51, is likely to be the only traditional liberal in the race.

That may put more pressure on the moderates-Wilder, Arkansas Governor Clinton and perhaps Sen. Albert Gore-to distinguish themselves from one another. A Harkin candidacy will also change the calculus of the early contests. Other candidates are likely to cede the Iowa caucuses (former senator Paul Tsongas's Iowa campaign coordinator has already resigned), adding weight to the outcome of the New Hampshire primary, which becomes the Democrats' first fight on neutral turf.

It's not hard to write a winning scenario for Harkin in the primaries. He needs a big win in Iowa, followed by a strong showing in New Hampshire and a sweep of the industrial heartland, fueled by populist anger at big business. But if Harkin wants to be a serious player in the fall election, he needs to do more than make true believers feel good. Otherwise, his candidacy will become another Democratic nightmare, another GOP dream come true.