Iowa House Race: Dialing for Dollars

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If the Democrats are going to take back the House, they need to win in places like Iowa's First District. Republican six-termer Jim Nussle has a big lead in the money-raising game. But the Dems have an impressive challenger in Ann Hutchinson, who hopes to become the first woman Iowans have ever sent to Congress.

Hutchinson became a Democrat — for the second time — largely by chance. A rising star as mayor of Bettendorf, a suburban town on the Mississippi, she was courted by both parties. The Republicans wanted her to run for lieutenant governor four years ago; she didn't like the head of the ticket. The Dems, in 1996, asked her to vie for Congress against Jim Leach; she figured he couldn't lose. But with redistricting last year, Leach moved west, leaving Nussle the man to beat in the First District. "He lost much of his rural base; 42% of the district's population is new for him," says Hutchinson. "And he's never won any of his races with more than 56% of the vote. This was the year."

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That was also the thinking of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which put Iowa's First District on its list of "vulnerable" Republican targets. And this wasn't just any Republican. This was the "righteous" Jim Nussle, who appeared on the House floor in 1991 with a paper bag over his head to express shame over the congressional bounced-check scandal.

So far, Nussle is holding up. He is outspending Hutchinson 2 to 1; President Bush stopped by last month and added $300,000 to his coffers. And Nussle can do things for Iowans that Hutchinson can't. As chairman of the House Budget Committee, he recently brought the Speaker of the House to Davenport to sign off on a new bridge across the Mississippi. And he promised to raise Medicare reimbursement by $123 million over the next three years.

With Nussle's pollsters claiming he has more than 50% of the vote, Hutchinson needs to move the debate quickly to an area in which the G.O.P. is weakest: corporate greed's role in the faltering economy. But she is on her second D.C.-imported campaign manager in three months and is plainly uncomfortable with the negative campaign ads Washington is producing for her. "It's not Iowa," she says. Last week, while Nussle was voting to support the use of force in Iraq, Hutchinson was in between campaign stops, in Dubuque on the phone, begging for money.