Ethanol could be key to Iowans on the fence

DES MOINES -- There are many things Bob Bowman will consider when he casts a ballot in this year's presidential race.

The 58-year-old eastern Iowa farmer wants a strong free-trade advocate in the White House. He wants a president who strengthens the financial safety net for farmers. And, like many Iowans, Bowman wants a proven supporter of ethanol.

"Obviously, that's toward the top of the list," says Bowman, who leans Republican but says his vote is "still up for grabs."

Bowman, who farms 2,000 acres, illustrates what agriculture and political experts such as Iowa State University political scientist Steffen Schmidt say is a potential lever to sway on-the-fence voters in Iowa.

Ethanol might have slipped off the national radar, he says, but could grow in importance if the race in Iowa tightens between Republican John McCain and Democratic Barack Obama.

A Sept. 27 Rasmussen Reports poll showed Obama with a 51% to 43% lead over McCain in Iowa. The state has been almost equally divided the past two presidential elections. In 2004, President Bush edged Sen. John Kerry 49.9% to 49.2%. In 2000, Al Gore barely beat Bush, 48.5% to 48.2%.

Schmidt says McCain's early opposition to ethanol tax credits could diminish his chances in the state. Obama, by contrast, he says, campaigned heavily on ethanol prior to the Iowa caucuses.

"I think it's always going to weigh in with a certain segment of voters who see ethanol as an important source of alternative energy," Schmidt says.

Both campaigns insist their approach to biofuels would better serve Iowans and the nation.

McCain supports energy alternatives such as ethanol, but believes the fuel additive can compete without "isolationist tariffs and special interest subsidies," says Iowa campaign spokeswoman Wendy Riemann.

"Every year, the ethanol industry shows further signs that it can live without government support," Riemann says. "By leveling the playing fields, and allowing the greater development of market-based solutions, John McCain believes we can gain better options for our fuel needs."

Jenni Lee, an Iowa spokeswoman for Obama, says Obama's experience representing Illinois has positioned him as an authority on ethanol's benefits.

"While Sen. Obama is committed to supporting Iowa biofuels, Sen. McCain sides with oil companies over ethanol," Lee said in an e-mail. "Sen. McCain is a vocal opponent of ethanol subsidies, which would not only cost the state thousands of jobs, but it just makes no sense for our energy security."

McCain drew criticism last week from Iowa Gov. Chet Culver, a Democrat, who cast ethanol as a state job-creator and a solution to high gas prices.

"I think if he were really putting 'country first,' and he was serious about cutting free from our dependence on foreign oil, he wouldn't oppose supporting ethanol," Culver says.

Ethanol's impact on the Iowa race is clouded by variables, including delayed disaster relief for this summer's record flood, a shaken national economy and the social-conservative appeal of McCain's running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Schmidt says.

Drake University political scientist Dennis Goldford says ethanol "isn't one of those deal breakers, the way abortion or gay marriage is. It's not a make-or-break issue."

In May, the U.S. House overwhelmingly rejected Bush's veto of a $289 billion farm bill that created separate incentives for corn-based ethanol and cellulosic biofuels. The bill established a 45-cent-per-gallon tax credit for ethanol refineries, a 6-cent drop from the previous incentive.

Iowa leads the nation's biofuel output, providing 31% of all U.S. ethanol with 28 refineries, according to a January report by John Urbanchuk, director of LECG, a financial analysis firm. Iowa has 14 ethanol plants under construction, which will boost production by nearly 70%, the report states.

In Iowa, ethanol also generated $2.9 billion in household income in 2007, generated more than 96,000 jobs since its creation and increased the gross domestic product by 10%, the report says.

Farmers can thank ethanol for the market's high corn prices as the harvest season nears, says Bruce Babcock, director of Iowa State University's Center for Agricultural and Rural Development. Corn prices on Thursday rose to $4.40 per bushel, according to the Chicago Board of Trade. Prices last year at this time hovered at about $3.50 per bushel, board records show.

Babcock says Iowans also could benefit from the development of cellulosic ethanol, a biofuel derived from wood, grasses and non-edible parts of plants. The refineries already exist to process the material, he says, but the technology to produce that kind of ethanol likely needs five to 10 more years to develop.

Schulte reports for The Des Moines Register.