IOWA CITY, Iowa — Scorching heat and a searing drought have made this one of Iowa’s worst summers on record. The corn is barely knee-high is some places, and analysts are predicting financial disaster for the state if the trend does not break soon.
But stunted plants and hungry cattle are not Iowa’s main affliction in this long, hot season, say residents. Rather, it is the attack ads that run constantly on local media.
“We are being bombarded,” said Kathryn, a fifty-something professional woman who has lived in Iowa for decades. “You cannot turn on the TV without seeing them.”
Iowa is a “swing state.” Although recent polls in the state give President Barack Obama a slight lead over his challenger, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, the race is too close to call. That’s made this small agricultural state the focus of unusually intense political activity.
Obama visited Cedar Rapids just a week ago to drum up support for his proposal to extend tax cuts for the middle class; his visit to the home of Jason and Ali McLaughlin was widely publicized.
Romney made Iowa stops during his four-day “Every Town Counts” bus tour, drawing fire from protesters along the way.
Read more: Romney wants Iowa. Iowans want Ron Paul
With the two candidates virtually neck-and-neck, Iowa’s six electoral votes may be more important than ever. The state is largely conservative, but liberal enclaves such as Iowa City, home to the University of Iowa, will most likely back Obama.
The town is lovely: independent bookstores, sidewalk cafes and tree-lined streets making a New Englander feel right at home. Buying gasoline is not such a painful experience in Iowa, although prices cause momentary confusion: premium — 89 octane — is cheaper than regular, thanks to ethanol made from Iowa corn.
But politics have taken their toll on the equanimity of this mid-western idyll.
“I don’t like either candidate,” said Fred, an academic researcher. “I do not think Obama has done a stellar job, but I really cannot understand why people cannot see through Romney.”
As the campaign drags on through the interminable summer, real issues are taking a back seat to vicious personal attacks from both sides.
The Obama campaign is intensifying calls for Romney to release his tax returns, suggesting that the extremely wealthy candidate has much to conceal in his reliance on tax loopholes and offshore accounts to shield his money from the federal government.
“What is Mitt Romney hiding?” asks the latest Obama campaign video.
Meanwhile, Fox News has unleashed its attack dogs, who are revisiting the “birther” controversy with a vengeance. Toxic talk-show host Rush Limbaugh and his cohort Sean Hannity have both sought to popularize the “investigation” by Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who on Tuesday held yet another press conference to announce that Obama’s Hawaii birth certificate was fraudulent.
Arpaio may just be trying to detract attention from his own legal difficulties. He faces lawsuits — one brought by a group of Latinos and another by the US Justice Department — which accuse him of civil rights violations, such as racial profiling, in his native Maricopa County.
Arpaio claims that the charges are politically motivated, because of his activities in “exposing” Obama’s birth.
The Republican camp has found another line of assault as well. On Tuesday, former New Hampshire Governor John Sununu, a surrogate for the Romney campaign, suggested on Fox News — where else? — that Obama was a druggie who could not be considered a real American.
“[Obama] has no idea how the American system functions, and we shouldn't be surprised about that, because he spent his early years in Hawaii smoking something,” said Sununu. “He spent the next set of years in Indonesia …. And, frankly, when he came to the US, he worked as a ‘community organizer,’ which is a socialized structure, and then got into politics in Chicago. There has been no experience in his life in which he's earned a private sector paycheck that meant anything.”
Came to the United States? Hawaii has been a part of the union since 1959, well in advance of Obama’s birth in Honolulu, in 1961. As to the “smoking something” … Obama’s biography and autobiography make no secret of his fondness for weed as a high-school student, something that hardly makes him unique.
The rhetoric shows no signs of slowing down; in fact, all the omens point to even uglier doings up ahead.
On his radio show on Wednesday, Hannity called for Romney to stop being such a nice guy: “The gloves have to come off,” he emphasized.
The Romney campaign will now “vet” the president, said Hannity, and it looks like nothing will be off limits.
The Obamas’ purchase of a house in Chicago, allegedly with the help of convicted felon Tony Rezko, is also being resurrected, again by Sununu.
And, of course, the ridiculous birther controversy just refuses to die.
Perhaps Democrats should take a page from Romney’s father, George, who ran for president in 1968.
Romney senior was born in Mexico, a fact not in dispute. Nevertheless, this was not seen as a serious impediment to his candidacy, since he was born to US citizens, and was a US citizen at birth.
One of these days the campaign might get back to real issues.
In the meantime, this contest is as starved for genuine information as Iowa corn is for water.