- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 26, 2002

A unique system of redistricting has turned Iowa's congressional races into a free-for-all, leading Democrats to believe they have a solid chance of defeating incumbent Republicans in two of the races.

As a signal of their hopes for Ann Hutchinson, who is running to unseat Rep. Jim Nussle, Democrats have tapped her to deliver their response to President Bush's weekly radio address today. This is an honor usually given to governors, representatives and senators.

Mrs. Hutchinson, mayor of Bettendorf, Iowa, will talk about Democrats' plans for the economy and contrast that with Republicans' record. That dovetails with one of her own campaign messages, which takes Mr. Nussle, chairman of the House Budget Committee, to task for overseeing the shift from large federal surpluses to deficits.

"Frankly it's the exact opposite of what Mayor Hutchinson did in Bettendorf," said Mark Nevins, Mrs. Hutchinson's spokesman, who said she turned municipal deficits into surpluses during her 16 years in office.

But Nick Ryan, Mr. Nussle's campaign manager, said Mr. Nussle has used his chairmanship to push for an amendment that would give Iowa an additional $123 million over three years for reimbursement to Medicare providers. That's a big issue in all the Iowa campaigns, because the state has one of the largest per capita elderly populations but also has the lowest reimbursement rate because of its rural nature and the way the formula is written.

While it is rare for a senior committee chairman to find himself in such a competitive race, Mr. Ryan said the reason can be traced to redistricting following the 2000 Census.

Mr. Nussle lost some of the conservative Northern Iowa counties he used to rely on and instead picked up Scott County, which contains Mrs. Hutchinson's home turf of Bettendorf. The new district also voted more than 55 percent for Democrat Al Gore in the 2000 election.

In most states, legislatures redraw congressional district lines in what is often a bitterly partisan exercise, while several states now use bipartisan commissions. Those two methods this year resulted in incumbents being protected.

Iowa, though, features four races on most pundits' watch lists, thanks to the state's process: A legislative commission draws the lines without regard to party registration or incumbents' homes, and produces a package of congressional and state legislative maps and the legislature then either accepts or rejects the package.

"There's something about Iowa's political culture that lends itself to that kind of nonpartisanship," said Nathaniel Persily, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School who has served as a consultant to some states during redistricting.

Mr. Nussle wasn't the only one to see big changes made to his district. Of the state's five seats, four are considered in play. Three of those seats are held by Republicans, and one by Democratic Rep. Leonard L. Boswell. The only seat not in play is the one seat without an incumbent. Republican Steve King is expected to win handily.

Democrats' second battle is to oust Rep. Jim Leach, who was initially paired with Mr. Nussle but who moved to Iowa's 2nd District to run for his 14th term. Dr. Julie Thomas, a pediatrician, is the Democrats' nominee in the race.

Mr. Davis last week said their polls show Mr. Leach leading "substantially," but he also lamented the circumstances that have left him vulnerable.

"The tragedy is, guys like Jim Leach are just a diminishing quality in Washington," he said. "This is a very bright, principled man who will take no contributions outside of Iowa. The Democrats are taking advantage of this."

Through Sept. 30 Mr. Leach had raised $403,425 and had $41,167 on hand, compared with Dr. Thomas' total of $997,159 and $145,076 on hand.

Mr. Davis' committee began running ads on Mr. Leach's behalf, over his objection, "just to make voters understand that he can't be up on TV because he doesn't take the special-interest money that she does."

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