Nationally, the 2012 presidential race is about big issues — Medicare, immigration and the federal budget. But in Iowa, a state that could swing the election toward either presidential candidate, President Obama has gone local, attempting to create a wedge issue by supporting wind-energy tax credits.
It’s a time-tested tactic in Iowa.
For years, presidential candidates, Republicans and Democrats alike, have journeyed to Iowa, dutifully pledging to maintain ethanol subsidies as they jockey for support in the first-in-the-nation caucus and its six electoral votes in the general election.
Few candidates with real presidential aspirations have dared to oppose the ethanol tax credits in such a politically influential state, and last year Mitt Romney followed suit, unequivocally announcing his support for government subsidies for the corn-based fuel during a campaign stop in Des Moines in March.
But at least so far, Mr. Romney has refused to embrace tax credits for wind energy, an alternative fuel responsible for roughly 20 percent of Iowa’s energy production and 7,000 jobs in the state.
The former Massachusetts governor, as well as his running mate Paul Ryan, instead are going after the Obama administration for failing to quickly approve the Keystone XL pipeline between Canada and Gulf Coast refineries in Texas and for waging a “war on coal” by pushing ahead with regulations on power-plant emissions, making it difficult to open new coal-fired plants.
In a tough economy, Mr. Romney’s push for more reliance on cheap fossil fuels resonates in the coal-reliant swing states of Ohio and Pennsylvania, where he trails Mr. Obama.
“Millions of middle-class Americans are struggling to find work — but President Obama’s policies have only made matters worse,” said Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul. “In Ohio and around the nation, the president’s energy policies have resulted in fewer jobs and higher costs at home.”
But energy politics are different in Iowa, and Mr. Obama sees an opening on the wind-energy issue. On Tuesday, he went to great lengths to exploit it during a stop in Oskaloosa, Iowa, on the second day of a three-day swing through the state.
“At a moment when homegrown energy is creating new jobs in states like Iowa, my opponent wants to end tax credits for wind-energy producers,” Mr. Obama said. “He’s said new sources of energy like these are ‘imaginary.’ His running mate calls them a ‘fad.’ ”
Mr. Obama didn’t stop there. He pressed the wind-energy tax credit issue hard by mocking Mr. Romney for saying in a speech a few months ago: “You can’t drive a car with a windmill on it.”
“I don’t know if he’s actually tried that. I know he’s had other things on his car,” Mr. Obama joked, referring to the story about the Romneys taking a family road trip in 1983 with their Irish setter, Seamus, in a carrier strapped to the roof of the car.
The White House on Tuesday punctuated the president’s campaign point by highlighting a new Energy Department report showing wind-power installations surging in 2011, but warning that uncertainty over extending the wind-energy tax credits threatens to “dramatically slow” the industry. The tax breaks will expire at the end of the year if Congress does not extend them.
Mr. Romney has said he wants wind power to compete in the free market, and his campaign has been deeply critical of Mr. Obama’s handling of government subsidies and stimulus money for solar-panel companies such as Solyndra. His campaign is even running a TV ad in Iowa that argues that part of the 2009 economic-stimulus package sent taxpayer dollars to “windmills from China.”
The position has drawn some sharp words from Iowa’s Republican governor, Terry Branstad, who has blamed a “bunch of East Coast people” for convincing Mr. Romney to oppose federal tax breaks for the wind-energy industry.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican and a longtime member of the Senate Finance Committee, also has taken issue with Mr. Romney’s stance on wind energy, arguing that “it’s not right to single out one energy incentive over others before a broader tax-reform debate.”
David Yepsen, a longtime columnist with the Des Moines Register who now serves as the director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, said Mr. Romney’s opposition to giving tax credits to wind-energy producers could exacerbate his reputation in Iowa of being out of touch with rural, middle-class voters.
“In Iowa, people of both parties have really embraced this idea of wind energy and fostering its development,” he told The Washington Times. “To win a presidential election you need someone who understands the problems of rural America — and wind energy is that way. There are certain touchstones you need to talk about and be fluent in, and wind energy is now one of them.”