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Corn's Clout For Campaign 2004

Four Democratic senators seeking to be president are certain of it. Opposing ethanol, the gasoline additive made out of corn, can doom a presidential bid almost before it starts.

So as the Senate begins in earnest this week to try to craft a new energy agenda for America, it may not be surprising that presidential politics - as well as energy policy - is hard at work.

The ethanol industry is wielding its political clout once again, with both Democrats and Republicans ready to support a product that means money in corn country.

There is little that Democrats like about the Republican-crafted energy legislation, with the exception of a proposal that would require doubling the use of corn-made ethanol in gasoline to 5 billion gallons a year.

Sponsored by the leaders of both parties - Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D. - and the enthusiastic backing of the White House, the ethanol measure is almost certain to become part of the final energy package.

Daschle, facing a potentially tough re-election bid in 2004, was back in his home state a few days ago, pumping ethanol-blended fuel into voters' cars at a Sioux Falls gas station.

As for Democratic Sens. Joe Lieberman, John Edwards, John Kerry and Bob Graham - they know that if their presidential bids are to avoid an ambush in corn-loving Iowa, where voters hold presidential caucuses in January, they had better get on the ethanol fuel wagon.

And they have.

Representatives of all four candidates say that their support for the Frist-Daschle ethanol proposal is solid, even though their Democratic colleagues from California and New York - two states with huge presidential convention delegations - argue that an ethanol mandate would mean higher gasoline prices for their states' motorists.

Last month, Edwards picked an Iowa ethanol plant to unveil his plan for "revitalizing rural America," declaring his support for "clean, homegrown energy ... instead of buying oil from the Middle East." It was the same plant then-candidate George W. Bush used to announced his energy agenda three years ago.

Edwards, a North Carolinian, "has been an ethanol proponent long before he thought of running for president," said spokesman Mike Briggs. Although Edwards is a former trial lawyer and benefits from large contributions from trial lawyer groups, he voted to protect ethanol from product liability lawsuits.

So powerful is the ethanol clout.

While opposed to the liability waiver, Lieberman, from Connecticut, favors the ethanol package, although Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., has vowed to try to block the ethanol provision. Schumer said it will lead to gasoline shortages and higher prices in the Northeast because ethanol has to be brought in from Midwestern plants.

Lieberman knows ethanol can give a jump start to a presidential campaign.

In the summer of 2000, when Lieberman stepped off a Mississippi riverboat in Iowa in his first visit to the state as Al Gore's presidential running mate, the first question from a reporters was: How do you feel about ethanol?

Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat, supports ethanol development and last year voted for a package of ethanol proposals similar to those being considered again by the Senate. But Kerry's energy agenda revolves more around a call for less energy use, including sharp increases in automobile fuel economy.

Graham of Florida has yet to outline in any specific way his energy priorities, but a spokeswoman said he has supported the increase in ethanol use as a way to broaden energy supplies.

To hold any other view could mean trouble for anyone running for president.

Democratic presidential hopeful Bill Bradley found that out in 2000. The former New Jersey senator was critical of tax breaks for ethanol, and heard about it in Iowa, where he was defeated handily. And Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has long opposed the government's ethanol subsidies, avoided Iowa altogether during his failed 2000 run for the GOP presidential nomination.

"It certainly creates doubt among Iowans when you have a history of voting against ethanol," says Jeff Link, who headed Gore's Iowa campaign in 2000 and has managed Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin's past two Senate campaigns. "Those are the kind of doubts you don't want to have raised."

By H. Josef Hebert