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2020 Democratic Contenders Head To Iowa With Hopes To Reconnect With Rural Voters

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The small Iowa town of Storm Lake is where some of the Democrats running for president will be speaking tomorrow. It's the first major multi-candidate event of the campaign so far, and it's meant to help the party reconnect with rural voters. As Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters reports, part of the appeal is to be on stage with the town's Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper editor.

CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: The lanky, white-haired and mustachioed editor of The Storm Lake Times walks across a downtown street to the Better Day Cafe.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOORBELL RINGING)

MASTERS: Art Cullen orders a roast beef sandwich and a can of Coke for lunch. Cullen can't really tell you the lead story for this twice-a-week newspaper right now. His son, Tom, is his main reporter.

ART CULLEN: I don't know what he's got. You know that routine. (Laughter) I haven't seen him. A good reporter, you don't want to see him.

MASTERS: Plenty of Democrats running for president want to be seen with Art. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, former HUD Secretary Julian Castro and former Congressman John Delaney will all be in Storm Lake tomorrow. Both Warren and Castro have already campaigned here once this year. Storm Lake is in Iowa's only congressional district represented by a Republican, and Cullen says many of the Democrats running for president were invited.

CULLEN: So it kind of tells me who really cares about rural Iowa, frankly. And if you ain't there, you're square.

MASTERS: Until now, Cullen says he's never received much attention during a presidential campaign. But in 2017, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his editorials challenging corporate agribusiness interests in the state.

CULLEN: What I'm talking about is realistic, sustainable practices that can be encouraged by Congress to make farmers and the environment whole, and we know how to do it. It's just that the chemical companies have bought the process. They've bought the judicial process, and they've bought the political process.

MASTERS: Cullen has spent decades writing about the challenges rural people face, says Tom Vilsack, a former two-term Democratic governor of Iowa.

TOM VILSACK: Art is clearly dedicated to small-town life.

MASTERS: Vilsack, who also served as President Obama's secretary of agriculture, says Storm Lake is a perfect microcosm of rural America's challenges - it has a growing immigrant population, many work at the Tyson meatpacking plant, a small private college that is working to attract and retain students at an affordable price, and farmers who have seen difficult times amidst slumping commodity prices and trade tariffs. Vilsack says Democrats need to make a solid case to these rural voters.

VILSACK: If you're not in a position to point out how government works and how government can work well for rural places then the argument of less government, less taxes, less regulation basically is a winning argument.

MASTERS: Many Democratic candidates are honing their pitch to rural Iowa. Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar started her first trip to the state in small towns like Knoxville, where she talked about energy and climate change policy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AMY KLOBUCHAR: And there's real gains for rural America if you do this right. I just don't see this as separate environment from economic gain.

MASTERS: While driving between campaign stops during his first swing through Iowa, former Texas Congressman Beto O'Rourke says rural America is not just about the food and fiber it grows.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BETO O'ROURKE: But in addition to that, it's the military service that distinguishes this country and is found disproportionately in rural communities.

MASTERS: But O'Rourke won't be in Storm Lake.

CULLEN: Beto, where's he at? Is he out in Taos, or is he dancing with Oprah? You know? Joe Biden, he's trying to make up his mind. Well, why doesn't he come and make up his mind with a bunch of Farmers Union members in Storm Lake? They'll help him make up his mind real good.

MASTERS: Art Cullen says candidates who show up in rural Iowa have historically done much better in the caucuses, and many of the Democrats may just want to keep showing up with Cullen. For NPR News, I'm Clay Masters in Des Moines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.