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Whiteman Says Iowa Economic Health Conflicts with GOP Theme

Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, and nearly every other Republican presidential candidate has visited the same sprawling factory complex here in recent months. They came to talk about business and manufacturing and, of course, to hit hard on the dominant theme of the campaign trail: unemployment and the struggling economy.

Mr. Romney’s harsh criticism of President Obama’s economic stewardship to a group of local business leaders was typical: “He is not up to the task of leading the country at a time of economic crisis. And that’s what we have.”

A factory should provide an ideal backdrop to that type of campaign rhetoric. But in this case, the candidates’ gloomy words contrasted with good times at the plant, and the surrounding community. The company, the Vermeer Corporation, a manufacturer of agriculture and mining machinery, has hired 200 new employees over the past two years as sales have risen to record levels. Today, it has openings for an additional 100 jobs.

As the first state to take part in the Republican nominating contest, Iowa has long been criticized as too much of an outlier to be permanently endowed such an outsize influence in shaping the presidential field. Too small, critics say. Too rural. Too white. But this election cycle, there is another particularly relevant way in which the state does not represent the nation as a whole: it is too economically healthy.

Iowa, one of several Midwestern states that largely sidestepped the reckless rise of the housing market and the crash that followed, has remained relatively stable through these difficult years. Buoyed by a booming agriculture sector, the state is enjoying lower unemployment, greater income growth, steadier home sales, and fewer foreclosures than most others.

"The recession hit here later, and it wasn’t nearly as bad,” said Charles Whiteman, director of the Institute for Economic Research at the University of Iowa. “This year, Iowa is actually performing fairly well.”

Which makes the state an odd staging ground for an election that is often described as all about jobs and the economy. Iowa has a 6 percent unemployment rate, the seventh lowest in the nation, just behind New Hampshire, where voters will cast ballots in a primary one week after the Iowa caucuses. That differs sharply from the hard-luck landscapes to which the primary voting will quickly shift—South Carolina, Florida and Nevada, all home to double-digit unemployment rates that are among the highest in the nation.

Though some people suggest that Iowa’s stability has broadened the debate beyond the economy in the early stages of the campaign, the presidential candidates—perhaps speaking to a national audience—continue to focus on the financial struggles of Americans as they deliver speeches around the state.

For the voters who say they plan to attend the Republican caucuses in Iowa, economic concerns are far less pronounced than elsewhere across the country. The latest New York Times/CBS News poll found that 19 percent of people likely to attend caucuses said they were very concerned that someone in their household could lose their job in the next year, while nationally that figure is about twice as high.

Moreover, the poll found that nearly 90 percent of those likely to take part in the caucuses described their family’s financial situation as good, which is about 20 points higher than all Americans.

At Ulrich’s Meat Market here in Pella, a town of 10,000, Joe Becker, the owner, said he was enjoying an unusually profitable year, a sentiment echoed by other business owners lining the vibrant Dutch-style center square. “We live in a bubble in this town,” he said. “You’d never know anything was wrong.”

Mr. Becker said that he remained undecided about which candidate to support (several have stopped by the store), and that he would like to see the remaining contenders spend a little less time talking about unemployment. “I realize the jobs thing is very important,” he said. “But there’s a whole bunch of other things that are not good.”

Doug Gross, a prominent Iowa Republican who supported Mr. Romney in the 2008 election but is currently not affiliated with any candidate, said he believed that the state’s relative economic health had encouraged more conversation about other issues, like immigration, same-sex marriage, and abortion.

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