On the set in Iowa

(Decorah, Iowa) –If you’re a candidate, Iowa makes a lovely setting for the national stage. Most candidates are here – - physically — but their message, although geared to win the caucuses here, are quite often aimed somewhere else.

Two advertisements in the blizzard of TV commercials seem to bear that out. In one, Barack Obama tells parents to turn off the TV and spend more times with the kids. Iowa seems an odd place to lecture parents about family time (it has one of the lowest divorce rates), especially from a candidate with two young children and a work schedule that took him to Iowa Friday, South Carolina yesterday, Los Angeles tomorrow, and Seattle on Wednesday. Oh, and there’s the irony of using a TV ad to tell people to turn off the TV.

And then there was the Mitt Romney ad focusing on defending marriage, a wedge issue if ever there was one — in 2004. The issue is one a candidate usually uses in a general election, rather than a caucus state in which same-sex marriage isn’t an issue among Republicans, especially when Rudy Giuliani isn’t working the state much.

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At the Family Table Restaurant in Decorah, where MPR’s Cathy Wurzer held court this morning, Tom and Jeanette Hansen (pictured above) have noticed that the candidates aren’t really talking Iowa issues while in Iowa. They run an organic beef farm, they’re voting for Bill Richardson, and they say the environment (which around here means hog farms) and the decline of rural towns are the two big issues. No candidate is running TV ads here about hog farms or rural towns.

“We used to be able to drive five or 10 miles and we’d go past farms owned by 27 people; now they’re owned by 6″ Tom Hansen says. Farm values are on the rise — a good thing, usually — but young people can’t afford $3,000 to $4,000 an acre in taxes,” says Hansen, who is running for an open state Senate seat.

At the other end of the Family Table diner in Decorah, these women meet every morning.

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They say they don’t see candidates missing regional issues because Iowa “is part of the nation.” This is a diverse group, politically speaking. With one lone Democrat, a handful of Republicans and one independent. While they’re not afraid to talk politics, none is fiercely loyal to a particular candidate. That’s what makes them a testament to the true oddity of the political season in Iowa — the relative absence of polarization in the political discussion.

“We’re respectful of other people’s opinions,” one said, talking about her small group of friends, but obviously applying the lesson to her community.

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