THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Scorn for debt deal a rallying cry for campaigners in Iowa

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By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / August 11, 2011

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ROCKWELL CITY, Iowa - It is a clear Monday night, and Representative Michele Bachmann is in a community center in this rural city so identified with the state’s cash crop that its motto is “Golden Buckle on the Corn Belt.’’

Rather than rallying the crowd with the social or religious causes she is well known for, the Minnesota Republican focuses on her longtime opposition to raising the debt ceiling.

“I was mocked; I was scoffed, I was jeered at; people said, ‘You’re crazy,’ ’’ she told a receptive audience. “I’m crazy? Unfortunately, the markets and ratings agencies proved me right this week. . . . It’s coming home to roost.’’

The causes of the ratings downgrade and stock market plunge are topics of furious debate. But there is no doubt she is targeting the issue that will be front and center in Iowa over the next several weeks, as the state becomes ground zero for Republican presidential politics.

Efforts to denounce any hike in the debt ceiling are sure to dominate a nationally televised debate tonight, the well-known Ames straw poll Saturday, and, in between, a parade of candidate speeches at the Iowa State Fair. After weeks of debate in the rarefied halls of the Capitol, the issue will get a full airing in the heartland.

Iowa is the only state whose entire congressional delegation - three Republicans, four Democrats - voted against the debt ceiling deal. Republicans opposed it on grounds it did not do enough to balance the government’s books; Democrats because it cuts too many programs they value and includes no guarantee of increased revenues.

The dispute has refocused the GOP presidential debate - even in a state that is known for putting an emphasis on abortion and gay marriage. Republican presidential hopefuls are increasingly trying to use the stock market downturn and Standard & Poor’s rating downgrade to push an agenda that emphasizes further budget cuts and deficit reduction. The debt reduction bill crafted in Washington, they say, does not go far enough - and many voters here seem to agree with them.

“I’ve not heard a single person who said they like it,’’ said Ryan Rhodes, chairman of the Iowa Tea Party. “The fact is, it was a crappy deal, even though it’s been sugarcoated as this huge win.’’

Rhodes and nearly two dozen Iowa Republicans interviewed said they did not believe the country would actually default on its payments, and that even if it did, it would teach Washington a lesson to radically decrease government spending. The deal that was ultimately struck calls for a reduction of the deficit by at least $2.4 trillion over 10 years and raised the government’s borrowing limit by a similar amount.

“What they passed in Congress is a joke,’’ Governor Terry Branstad, a Republican, said in an interview. “The president certainly, and a lot of the leadership in Washington, still doesn’t realize the magnitude of the dissatisfaction and outright fear that exists in the public out here in the heartland.’’

That raw anger illustrates why Mitt Romney, Bachmann, and others vying for the presidential nomination have chosen to oppose the deal, trying to tap into an uncompromising sentiment that exists in some parts of the country.

“It’s certainly changing the landscape of this state,’’ said Tim Albrecht, a GOP operative who ran communications for Romney four years ago and is now a Branstad spokesman and unaffiliated in the presidential race.

In many ways, they have won: getting deep cuts and steering the national conversation to one that is focused on the deficit and away from big-ticket spending items such as the federal stimulus. President Obama has started talking about cutting trillions from the deficit and at times has been willing to go further than Republicans because he wants a quid pro quo of allowing some of George W. Bush-era tax cuts to expire.

Yet by no means are all Republicans claiming victory.

“It’s plain and simple: Most people feel that we’ve compromised - compromised so much,’’ said Kevin Schreier, chairman of the Calhoun County Republican Party. “Unfortunately a lot of people in Iowa feel that the leadership, even the regular Republicans, caved in.’’

While this could stir passions in the GOP primary, it could backfire in a general electorate that seems to want compromise.

A New York Times poll last week found that 85 percent of Americans think Republicans and Democrats should compromise on some positions to get things done. Only 12 percent said they should stick to their positions, even if it means not getting as much done. Support for the Tea Party movement has also declined, posing problems for candidates such as Bachmann who are courting Tea Party activists who pride themselves on unbending principles and an unwillingness to compromise.

The only Republican presidential candidate to back the budget and debt ceiling deal was Jon Huntsman Jr., a former governor of Utah. He, along with many business-minded groups such as the US Chamber of Commerce, said the country had to raise the debt ceiling to avoid defaulting on its obligations.

That argument was lost on many here in Rockwell City, about two hours north of Des Moines in rural Calhoun County, population 9,700. It is a place where 362 people voted in the 2008 GOP caucuses. Mike Huckabee won 40 percent, while Romney was at 15 percent.

Nearly 100 people gathered Monday night at the local community center for a Republican picnic. They sat at tables adorned with American flags and stuffed elephants, munched on steak sandwiches, and ruminated over the country’s leaders’ reluctance to make tough cuts.

“When you eat candy, what happens?’’ asks Dave Howrey, who runs a paving company. “Your teeth rot. Then you go to the dentist - and it hurts, but he fixes it. But you just can’t eat candy all your life.’’

“I wasn’t brought up this way they’re trying to spend money,’’ said Carolyn Corey, 74, who with her husband runs a 3,000-acre farm. “We can’t run our business that way. We can’t just write checks.’’

Some say they are ready to sacrifice themselves. They can do with a smaller Social Security check or cuts to Medicare. And in a state that has long relied on government subsidies to help its ethanol industry, they are prepared for cuts to those, too.

“There is a broad and general sense in the [agricultural] community that some of the subsidies will be, if not eliminated, reduced,’’ said state Representative Dave Tjepkes, a Republican from Gowrie.

But most Iowa Republicans interviewed in recent days said they still remain opposed to any tax increases, believing that any additional money coming into the Treasury would be spent rather than used to reduce the deficit.

“Well that’s a fine kettle of fish! It’s called a Double. Dip. Recession,’’ Bachmann said of any thought of tax increases. “You raise taxes right now, we’re done. We’re done trying to get to an economic turnaround.’’

Bachmann spoke for 30 minutes, devoting about a third of her speech to the debt limit issue. She got as much applause delivering those lines as she did in her critique of President Obama’s signature health care law.

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser.com.