(Des Moines, IA) A few hundred Iowa farmers sat eating their pancakes and link sausage on a Wednesday morning in Des Moines, when Texas Governor George W. Bush strode into the room for a “shake and howdy” session with potential supporters.

Bush, the frontrunner in the contest to win the Republican party’s next presidential nomination, is gunning for votes in Iowa, the state which hosts Caucuses January 24, an event which is considered the kick-off of the 2000 election cycle.

Bush had the run of the room at the Iowa Farm Bureau’s annual convention before rival candidate Steve Forbes, the magazine publisher, entered the scene, finding many in the crowd had accepted and put on green caps printed with the words “Bush Farm Team”.

The two met face-to-face, exchanged pleasantries and a handshake (an event captured by the throng of media surrounding them), then Forbes offered this comeback.

“We’re tellin’ the folks here today that you can wear the green, but I’ll let you keep the green,” Forbes said in reference to his plan to establish a “flat tax” of 17 percent on income.

All the Republican presidential candidates but John McCain, the Arizona Senator, have appealed for the farm vote in Iowa, promising to demolish trade barriers with other countries and keep the basic premise of the landmark “Freedom to Farm” law intact.

That law saw Congress depart from traditional farm supports toward a system of declining government payments to farmers, with the goal of having farmers make their planting decisions based on the market rather than government rules.

Supporters say it’s free market enterprise. Critics, like democrat presidential candidates Al Gore and Bill Bradley, call the policy “Freedom to Fail.” Gore and Bradley promise to re-establish some sort of a “safety net” for farmers, with government payments to farmers kicking in when prices for commodities like corn and soybeans fall below a set price.

Varel Bailey, a 59 year old farmer who raises corn, beans, cattle, hogs and sheep on land near Anita, Iowa, is a Republican who supports the end of government price supports and expansion of trade opportunities, as he believes it’ll be more and more difficult to get the candidates to focus on ag issues.

“It’s always tough, because farmers make up less than two percent of the population, so if I were a presidential candidate, why I’d parcel my time out on agriculture real carefully,” said Bailey, who has been president of both the Iowa and National Corn Growers Associations. “On the flip side, though, agriculture is very important because we’re interlocked with the rest of the world, in trade and providing food and fiber, so they can’t ignore it, but as a powerful voting block, if it weren’t for the (Iowa) Caucuses, I’m not sure (the candidates would talk about agriculture at all.”

There are less than 100,000 farmers in Iowa today and to illustrate their fading political might, one need look no further than Latino voters which will at some point in the next decade outnumber farmers in Iowa.

Fifty-six year old Joan Bartenhagen raises non-traditional Iowa crops like potatoes, watermelon and cantaloupe on her farm near Muscatine, Iowa, and she’s still searching for a candidate to support.

“We’re not sure (the candidates) completely understand all the farm issues that are going on,” Bartenhagen said as Bush strolled through the Farm Bureau convention. “We’d like open markets with all the foreign countries, with less government intervention. We aren’t out for getting free hand outs or anything from the government. We just want open trade so that we can openly sell our products.”

Another convention-goer, 48 year old Carlton Kjos who farms near Decorah, Iowa, supported former candidate Elizabeth Dole, who dropped out of the race last month, and is still looking for another Republican to support.

“A big part of it will be their position on farm issues, but also social issues are important, and character,” he said.

Kjos said he isn’t supporting Bush or Forbes yet, as they haven’t provided him enough specifics.

“We always want them to address more, not only as candidates, but also to remember once they get elected,” Kjos said.

Sixty-nine year old Laverne Lansman of Audubon, Iowa, stood in line to get Bush’s autograph, as she’s decided he’s the candidate she’ll back. Lansman rejects Kjos’ claim that Bush hasn’t provided enough specifics.

“His positions are very well outlined,” she said. “In fact, I’ve gone to the Internet and found a page on just about every topic that you can think of, from gun control to farm issues to education especially. I own a farm, that’s my source of income, and I’m very interested in what the farm economy is.”

Merlin Bartz, a 38-year farmer who’s also a member of the state legislature, shepherded his presidential pick, Steve Forbes, through the farm crowd. Bartz has pushed for a statewide mandate that corn-based ethanol fuel be the only gas dispensed from Iowa pumps.

All the candidates but John McCain have stated their support of ethanol’s federal tax break (the federal tax on ethanol is one cent less than what’s charged on other gasoline). That includes Bill Bradley, who voted to end ethanol’s tax advantage while he was a member of the U.S. Senate.

Bartz believes McCain, who is an outspoken critic of the ethanol subsidy, could win support in Iowa, although McCain has decided not to campaign in the state, focusing on New Hampshire’s primary instead.

“People look at the entire candidate and the ethanol issue is one issue that I think a lot of Iowans are very interested in right now, but I would not recommend, or myself personally, would not choose a candidate based on one issue,” Bartz said.

A recent Des Moines Register poll of likely Iowa Caucus-goers found McCain o have the support of eight percent of those surveyed.