The Only "Real" Democrat in the Race

The combative tenor of Iowa Senator Tom Harkin's campaign was evident from the day he announced his candidacy on September 15, 1991.  In front of 3,000 people at his annual steak fry in Winterset, Iowa, Harkin vowed to take on "George Herbert Walker Bush" and "throw that failed economic experiment of trickle down economics out the window."  

More than any other Democrat, Harkin directly attacked Bush and his economic policies.  He was described not just as a liberal, but as an "unapologetic" or "unrepentant" liberal.  Harkin drew strong support among organized labor, gaining endorsements from a dozen major unions including the UAW, IBEW, steelworkers and letter carriers.  His fiery, populist rhetoric attracted considerable early backing in states like Wisconsin, Minnesota and South Dakota.

Harkin enjoyed a solid fundraising start.  An aggressive direct mail effort brought in thousands of new contributors, and there were many fundraising events.  One of the biggest was held on November 18 to celebrate Harkin's 52nd birthday; according to the campaign, 20,000 people turned out at 1,200 "From Your House to the White House" house parties across the country.  Harkin accepted PAC money [1], but many of his contributions came in amounts of $200 or less.

Harkin had been doing what he called "work days," in which he spent a full day on the job in various occupations, since his first run for Congress.  To emphasize his ties to working men and women, he continued these work days as a presidential candidate.  Harkin's stints included days as a bricklayer in Baltimore, a construction worker on Los Angeles' new metro rail system, and a municipal employee in Franklin, New Hampshire.  The work days did not seem to draw as much media attention as the campaign had hoped.

In addition to his labor strength, Harkin sought to draw pro-Israel supporters to his campaign.  He also made a strong appeal to disabled voters.  Harkin's brother Frank had been deaf since childhood.  Harkin had led the fight to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.  He had a national disability constituency coordinator on his campaign staff and a sign language interpreter could usually be found at his speeches.

Despite his oratory, Harkin's standing remained flat in polls.  He contrasted himself — a "real" Democrat — with the other "microwave Democrats" in the race, but this may not have been the wisest approach; the Democratic party had had experiences with traditional candidates in 1984 and 1988.  Criticized for not being specific enough, Harkin came out in mid-January with a 35-page booklet "A Blueprint to Build a New America."  

Harkin called for a New Growth Agenda founded on "resource-based economics" or investments in America's people and infrastructure.  In a major foreign policy speech at Harvard University on January 24, Harkin called for a 50-percent cut in defense spending.  He opposed the middle class tax cut favored by Clinton and Kerrey, noting that it would save the average family only one dollar a day.  Harkin emphasized this point by holding up a dollar bill during several of the televised debates.

Harkin achieved an overwhelming victory in the February 10 Iowa caucuses, gaining more than 70% of the delegates.  However the home state win had little effect because the other candidates had long since ceded the state to Harkin.  In New Hampshire, Harkin finished fourth, and in South Dakota, where he had been well-organized, he finished behind Bob Kerrey, the other midwesterner.  Harkin withdrew in a March 9 speech at Gallaudet University.  His departure left labor and liberal supporters looking for a candidate, and many gravitated toward Brown.
Unlike Kerrey and Brown, who kept their distance from Clinton, Harkin endorsed Clinton toward the end of March and stumped for the Arkansas governor in Wisconsin and elsewhere.

1.  On the subject of PAC money, Harkin stated, "I take P.A.C. money, you bet I do.  I don't want to fight with one hand tied behind my back.  In George Bush, we are up against the mother of all money machines."

Harkin campaign manager Tim Raftis, deputy campaign manager Kay Casstevens and others were interviewed for this section.

Elizabeth Kolbert.  "Harkin Seeks to Recall Democrats' History, Though Some Fear It."  New York Times, December 26, 1991, page D11.  This article was one of the "Strategies: The Democrats and '92" series that the Times ran at the end of December.

Rhodes Cook.  "'American Dream' Personified, Harkin Hits Populism Trail."  Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, December 7, 1991, pages 3607-3613.

Ruth Marcus.  "Harkin Brandishes Politics of the Personal."  Washington Post, February 19, 1992, page A1.

Judith Miller.  "Tom Harkin's Old Time Religion."  New York Times, February 9, 1992, Sec. 6 (Magazine), page 32.

More Resources:
C-SPAN: Tom Harkin Sept. 1991-Sept. 1992 chronological  |  C-SPAN: all Tom Harkin
Harkin Institute