By RYAN J. FOLEY
IOWA CITY, Iowa — The “Great Recession” barely touched Iowa City.
The University of Iowa and its hospital are in the middle of a construction boom. A manufacturer is touting plans to hire 175 people for a new iron foundry. Farmers working the land outside the city are flush with cash from record-setting crop prices.
Yet, after Rick Perry entered the Republican presidential race, he rolled into town on a bus emblazoned with “Get America Working Again” and offered prescriptions for fixing the economy. Newt Gingrich stopped by to bash what he calls job-killing environmental and labor regulations. Ron Paul said during a recent visit that an overreaching federal government is hurting “the productivity of all of us and means we will be poorer.”
Throughout the campaign for Tuesday’s Iowa caucuses, it hasn’t seemed to matter much that the state economy is in far stronger shape than the rest of the country, with unemployment at 5.7 percent, agricultural real estate selling near all-time highs and some manufacturers reporting a shortage of skilled workers to fill all their openings.
Republican voters who in past election years focused on pocketbook issues specific to Iowa, such as corn subsidies or ethanol policy, say they’re taking a wide-angle view of the economy this year. They blame President Barack Obama for its sputters and fear giving him a second term will slide it back toward the abyss.
“The economy is still suffering, even though the numbers don’t say it. People are hurting and things have gone downhill since Barack Obama became president,” said Pam Swick, a Council Bluffs retiree and Perry supporter.
“Yes, things are better here. But they’re still not good,” she said. “And don’t credit President Obama for it. He’s made it worse. Things here are going fine despite him, not because of him.”
Iowa’s economy fell into recession later than the nation’s and didn’t drop as far as some other states, said Iowa State University economist David Swenson. There wasn’t much of a housing bubble, partly because the state is slow-growing but economically stable.
Yet a recent New York Times/CBS News poll found the economy was by far the most important issue to likely Republican caucus-goers. Leading the polls off and on in recent weeks have been the candidates most associated with the pro-business, small-government, economic freedom slices of the GOP: Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul. Those with stronger ties to the party’s social conservative base — Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann and Perry — make time for a healthy dose of economics during their stump speeches.
Jim Knapp, a 71-year-old home builder who lives in Iowa City and plans to support Bachmann, is one of many taking the wide view. Knapp said he is collecting Social Security and works on home remodeling projects while his wife works at the University of Iowa. They’re doing fine financially.
But he said he’s worried about the long-struggling economy in Detroit, where his son is a preacher. His son-in-law, meanwhile, is being laid off in a downsizing at a financial company in Minnesota.
“Iowa’s economy has held up because of the agricultural base,” Knapp said as he left a Bachmann event at a diner. “But we need to get the whole economy back on track. As long as the nation is suffering, everybody is, to some extent.”
To be sure, not all of Iowa is as economically healthy as Iowa City. Swenson said that while Des Moines and the corridor between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids are doing well, cities such as Waterloo and Mason City that rely heavily on manufacturing are struggling with long-term unemployment and a slow recovery.
“We’re just kind of stuck in neutral,” Swenson said. “On average, we don’t look so bad, but a large swath of the state also doesn’t look so hot.”
Still, Swenson said he wasn’t surprised that Iowa’s Republican voters are focused on the economy outside of the state. Many are businesspeople and farmers who equate a recovering national economy to renewed demand for their products.
That’s the view of Norman Olson, a 77-year-old retired farmer from Northwood, near the border with Minnesota. “It still hurts that other people don’t have work other places,” he said. “We are not isolated from the rest of the country.”
Then, there’s Obama. A recent University of Iowa Hawkeye poll found that Iowa Democrats have a brighter view of the economy than those in the GOP, suggesting some of the gloomy Republican outlook could be tinged by anti-Obama partisanship.
That’s the case for Carol Ann Christiansen, 55, president of the Johnson County Republican Women and the retired owner of a floral business. She said she wants a candidate who will be frugal in Washington and “create the jobs this country so desperately needs.” She dismissed the economic success in the state college town of Iowa City as being largely funded by taxpayers.
“We need a president who is going to give business people some economic certainty,” Christiansen said. “Every other day there seems to be some new regulation that makes it hard for them.”
Associated Press writers Philip Elliott and Shannon McCaffrey contributed to this report from Dubuque, Council Bluffs and Mason City.