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A Nice Guy Who Finishes First, Iowa's Gov. Bob Ray Could Be the Next 'jimmy Who'

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On a recent Saturday morning, as a blizzard paralyzed much of the Midwest, a phone rang in Iowa’s darkened state capitol. “Hello,” answered the only state official to fight his way through the snow. “No, nobody else is in. This is Bob Ray. I came in to work on the budget.” Political opponents wince when they hear such stories, but they know better than to call them apocryphal.

“No man,” sighs one skeptical lowan, “can be that perfect.” Yet clearly Robert D. (for Dolph) Ray, 50, who began an unprecedented fifth term as governor last week, is a politician of few public flaws. Fit and handsome (reporters compare him to David Janssen or Tony Perkins), he is, by all accounts, a devoted husband and father, a tireless worker, a tenacious athlete (aides say he plays tennis “for blood”) and a man of serene disposition. He does not smoke, rarely takes a drink and is a lifelong member of Des Moines’ First Christian Church, where he taught Sunday school. His most prominent weakness is a gluttonous craving for ice cream.

Politically, too, Ray seldom takes a false step. In a recent poll 86 percent of Iowa voters indicated they approved of his policies. Though he is a Republican in a state whose prairie conservatism can no longer be taken for granted, he attracts support from all shades of the political spectrum. “People call him an odd mix of fiscal conservatism and sensitivity to social issues,” says fellow lowan Mary Louise Smith, a former GOP national chairwoman. “He simply crosses the lines.” He is also, perhaps, a man of his times. Long before Proposition 13 made the taxpayers’ revolt a national catchphrase, Ray shrewdly shifted the burden of educational costs from property taxes to other state revenues. As a result, he notes proudly, “the average property tax rate has gone from $14.62 to $11.14 per $1,000. Yet state aid to schools has increased by $373 million.”

Though his image is hardly that of a radical, the governor hasn’t hesitated to take political risks. He came out early and unequivocally for ERA (Iowa was one of the first states to ratify the amendment), supports legalized abortion (a stand that spelled defeat last fall for Iowa Sen. Dick Clark) and campaigned successfully for a bill requiring a three-day waiting period before the purchase of a hand gun. Ray opposes the death penalty and instituted job training for state prison inmates. “We don’t want them making license plates for a nickel an hour,” he explained. “We want to give them meaningful jobs and pay them so they can take care of their families.”

Disgruntled Democrats, baffled by his ideological poaching, call him “the Grinch who steals issues.” Ray doesn’t mind a bit. When he first moved into the governor’s office 10 years ago, he recalls, “all we had was the key. No secretary or anything. Finally I asked for a moment alone, sat back in that big chair and decided that the only way to do this job was to listen to everybody, know the options, make knowing I was going to get the flak.”

The son of a Des Moines accountant, Ray was born in 1928 and grew up during the Depression. He was so shy in first grade that his teacher assumed he had a speech defect, but by the time he reached junior high school he was running a hard-sell campaign for student council president (“full of hoopla, banners and noise,” recalls a friend) and starring on the basketball team. Graduating from high school in 1946, he enlisted in the infantry and served in postwar Japan. Back in the U.S., he enrolled at Drake University under the GI bill and married his high school sweetheart, Billie Lee Hornberger, in 1951.

After graduating from law school three years later, Ray caught the eye of local Republican kingmakers, who persuaded him to run for county attorney. “What they didn’t tell me,” Ray remembers, “was that in Polk County only Democrats got elected.” At first he was naively embittered by defeat. “I had a perspective that was sort of like grade school,” he recalls, “where someone asks you to run for office and then you step outside the classroom and don’t vote for yourself.” Though he had lost an election, he had found his vocation. In 1958 he ran unsuccessfully for the legislature. By 1963 he had risen to the rank of state GOP chairman, just in time for the Goldwater debacle the following year. “We really were in disarray,” Ray admits. “We couldn’t even find the pieces, let alone put them together.”

Immediately, Ray began to reorganize. “We started a school for legislative candidates,” he recalls. “Initially we had lots of places where nobody wanted to run. I flew all over the state and finally got every place on the ballot filled but one.” Two years later Iowa Republicans staged a startling comeback—”we won every state office but governor and treasurer and put 88 legislators in the state-house.” Bob Ray got the credit.

His first run for the governorship in 1968 came perilously close to costing him his life. Barnstorming the state in a tight primary race, he glanced out the window of his chartered plane and noticed some lights. “Hey, I don’t want to be a backseat driver,” he told the pilot, “but we’re too low.” The pilot tried to pull up, but .the plane stalled and struck the ground, breaking in half. “We skidded half a mile,” says Ray, “and when we stopped all that was left was a little piece of the cab.” Despite a leg cast and considerable pain, Ray was back campaigning seven weeks later on crutches—against doctor’s orders. He won in November, and has never lost since.

Today Bob Ray is one of the nation’s two senior governors in terms of consecutive years in office. His friend Gerald Ford named him as one of eight acceptable vice-presidential running mates in 1976, and talk has already surfaced in Des Moines of a run for the presidency in 1980. Yet, significantly, even those who most admire the governor wonder whether he is driven by sufficient ambition for national office. “If you want to be President of the U.S., you really have to work at it,” says one of Ray’s Iowa allies. “It’s not one of those things where they tap you on the shoulder.” Adds another old friend: “You have to have fire in the belly. Bob Ray doesn’t.” The governor scoffs—and denies also that he is inexperienced. “I’ve had as much experience as the present President when he ran,” Ray observes mildly. The campaign and the New Hampshire primary are only a year away now. But even sooner come the Iowa precinct caucuses, where Jimmy Carter scored his first major triumph. In politics the choice of battlefield matters, and in Iowa, Bob Ray doesn’t lose.