SIOUX CITY | The most spirited congressional contest U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Kiron, has encountered will be decided Nov. 6 by voters in the 39 counties comprising the new Iowa 4th congressional district.
Democratic candidate Christie Vilsack, a former Iowa first lady, has proven to be a formidable opponent for the five-term congressman in fundraising and in the numerous debates that have occurred since September.
The two have debated twice in Northwest Iowa -- on Sept. 27 in Orange City and Oct. 9 in Sioux City. The next debate is scheduled for Oct. 25, in Carroll.
The King-Vilsack race has drawn national attention, with numerous national media outlets following the contest. Outside groups have poured money into advertising as well. In late September, King said groups opposing his re-election had spent $4 million on commercials, well above the amount in the his first five runs combined for Congress.
Iowa State University political science professor Steffen Schmidt said the race has proven tighter than expected.
"They've both been pretty smart in how they've run their campaigns," Schmidt said.
Schmidt said King has "adjusted his campaign rhetoric somewhat," and tacked away from far right positions that were popular among voters in the former 5th congressional district.
"He hasn't really run on that pure, true tea party conservative agenda," Schmidt said. "That is probably smart, because the district is more complicated now. You're not going to appeal as much with your hard-core positions on things like illegal immigration to a new bunch of voters in parts of the district who are moderate."
By contrast, Schmidt said, Vilsack "has tried like crazy to avoid being (called) a big-spending liberal Democrat."
The professor said independents and undecideds will need to take a closer look at the positions of the candidates.
"People are interested in it. They are not assuming that King is going to walk away with re-election," Schmidt said.
King himself said the lines have been drawn as people have watched commercials and debates involving the two candidates.
"It is a clear line -- one candidate is the full-spectrum constitutional conservative and one is the full-spectrum liberal," King said.
Vilsack frequently says the district needs a representative who isn't a partisan firebrand but who will take a middle approach to addressing issues of importance to Iowans.
King is a social and fiscal conservative whose statements have alternately pleased fans and upset those to the left of the political spectrum. He wants to pass a federal balanced budget amendment, has led unsuccessful efforts to repeal the 2010 federal health care reform package and would love to see the federal income tax abolished and replaced with a 23-percent national sales tax.
Vilsack has repeatedly said her job is to get to know the people in the counties of her district and determine what they need. Her standard line is that she wants to help Iowa communities flourish by creating new "layers of economic opportunity," toward the goal of rebuilding the 4th District middle class.
She has encouraged the development of new bio-based businesses that create products using Iowa raw materials, and pledged to work across party lines to do that.
Schmidt has noticed her main talking points during a visit to his class in Ames.
"She didn't really dwell on a lot of the favorite liberal policies. She talked about how important it is to keep small towns and communities alive and to make sure their economies are good and that kids have a chance to get an education," Schmidt said.
Three polls released on Sept. 27 showed King with a lead, but narrowly.
In the American Future Fund poll, King led Vilsack 48 percent to 41 percent, while a Public Policy Polling outcome had King ahead 48-45 percent, and Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research found King up 48-46 percent.
The two candidates have had high-profile surrogates come to the district to boost their campaigns. In September, New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie visited Sioux City in support of King, while former President Bill Clinton also came to the city to back Vilsack on Oct. 12.
In the Iowa 5th District, King won substantial victories over Democrats Paul Shomshor in 2002, Joyce Schulte in 2004 and 2006, Rob Hubler in 2008 and Matt Campbell in 2010. The new 4th District, created after 2011 reapportionment, drops southwest counties King currently represents, and adds a tier of North Central counties.