Breaking Away from the Pack Early, Democrat Bruce Babbitt Pedals His Presidential Hopes Across Iowa

updated 08/11/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/11/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

In an earlier era he might have taken to the rails in a flag-festooned caboose, delivering campaign speeches at every whistle stop. Instead, Arizona's Democratic Gov. Bruce Babbitt mounted his 15-speed Schwinn bicycle last month and pedaled 397 miles across the backroads of Iowa, stopping occasionally to introduce himself to farmers and townsfolk. Finishing his journey a week later at the banks of the Mississippi, he waded tentatively out into the river as an onlooker shouted, "Hey, are you aspiring to become President?" With a broad grin Babbitt replied, "Well, that's a rumor that's going around, and I haven't done anything to discourage it."

Most of the 7,500 bicyclists this year who joined the Des Moines Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, a noncompetitive tour through undulating countryside, came to test their physical stamina. Babbitt, 48, came to test the political waters. While he proved his mettle riding 70 miles a day in broiling heat, his main objective was to sell his neoliberal message of "fiscal conservatism and social progressivism" to Iowa Democrats, whose caucuses in February 1988 are the first major test of the presidential campaign.

Babbitt's svelte wife, Hattie, 38, a lawyer, kept pace with him on her Schwinn throughout the tour. Meanwhile, their two sons followed along in an air-conditioned camper. T.J., 8, spent much of the time playing the video game Enchanter on his Macintosh computer. But Christopher, 10, good-naturedly joined in the political showmanship. Prior to a staged appearance for the press at a soybean farm, Christopher got out to cycle with his parents to the scene. After the photo session was over, he whispered to his father's aide, "When we're out of sight, you can pick me up in the van."

In the evenings Babbitt made the rounds at political fund raisers, where he blasted President Reagan for abandoning the SALT II agreement and denounced the Gramm-Rudman budget package as "a confession of moral bankruptcy." Among the faithful, Babbitt, who studied geology at Notre Dame and law at Harvard, came off as droll and somewhat professorial. "I saw heads bobbing in agreement when he talked," says Elaine Baxter, the Democratic candidate for Iowa Secretary of State, "but he's not a dynamic speaker who ignites a crowd." Adds
David Wheeler, president of the Young Democrats of Iowa, "He did send out electricity, but I was waiting to be struck by lightning."

On the road Babbitt took a low-key approach, often waiting until he had conversed with people for a few minutes before introducing himself as a politician. Outside Traer, Realtor Duane McNeal listened to Babbitt discuss farm problems after being offered a glass of cool lemonade. "He's the kind of down-home guy," says McNeal, "who could sit down at our kitchen table." Other times, however, Babbitt found that remaining anonymous had its drawbacks. Stopping at a taco stand in Muscatine, Babbitt, who prides himself on being bilingual, introduced himself in Spanish to the woman behind the counter. She cut him off quickly, saying she was too busy to help a gringo practice her language. Still, Babbitt took it all in good humor and promised to come back in the fall to campaign in earnest. "I think the ride did everything it was supposed to do," he says. "At least I didn't have to go around in a three-piece suit knocking on doors and immediately setting up distance by announcing that I'm a politician."

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