One of U.S. Senate candidate Bruce Braley's favorite stories to tell on the campaign trail has a show-and-tell aspect to it.
Braley, the son of a second-grade teacher, pulls out a pair of 30-year-old leather work boots and tells Iowans that they're "covered with oil and grease and paint and mud" from a summer job on a road crew in Poweshiek County back in his college days.
There's a reason why he's kept them, he says.
He threw out his original pair of work boots when he went off to the University of Iowa's College of Law. But after his father and both paternal grandparents died within a three-month period during his first year, he decided to go back home for the summer to be with his mother. And that meant asking for his old hard-labor job back.
"These boots are a reminder to me that life is unpredictable and that working people get up every day and make our lives better without expecting anything in return except a chance at living the American dream," Braley, a trial lawyer and northeast Iowa congressman, told an audience of Democratic supporters last week. "These boots remind me that my top priority as your next senator is to make an economy that works for everyone, not just for the wealthy few."
The boots are emblematic of his campaign sales pitch in the waning days of this high-pressure, tiny-margin-of-error race. Battered by negative ads and lingering fallout from a remark he made about Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley's farm roots and lack of a law degree, Braley tries to soften his perceived elitist edge by accentuating the blue-collar jobs he worked during his tragedy-marred early life, and by pitching his populist policy positions.
And he kicks at his GOP rival for being too conservative, even as Joni Ernst's strategists try to soften her sharp ideological edges by accentuating her compelling biography and likable personality.
Like Democrat Tom Harkin, the 30-year senator whose shoes he wants to fill, Braley advocates for raising the federal minimum wage to give bottom-rung workers a pay raise from $15,000 a year to $21,000.
That's a central theme for Braley on the campaign trail, as well as pledges to keep federal student loans available for those who can't afford college without them and to strip tax breaks from companies that ship jobs overseas.
In Cedar Rapids one recent day, he dropped by a retirement center, a fat pumpkin tucked under one arm. It was arts and crafts time at Kingston Hill, and about a dozen residents had gathered at tables for Halloween pumpkin decorating.
Braley circled the room to talk to every resident, dropping onto one knee to get to eye level with a woman in a wheelchair.
Several times, as a conversation starter, Braley would ask: "Do you know why Halloween is so special to me?"
He told each of them, as a clutch of reporters shot video and scratched in notebooks: "I was born 15 minutes before Halloween, so Halloween was always a big deal for me growing up. We would go trick-or-treating for UNICEF on my birthday, and we'd go trick-or-treating for us on Halloween."
Braley worked Social Security into several conversations.
"My plan is to make sure everyone puts the same share of their earned income into Social Security," he said. "One thing I won't do is privatize Social Security. And raising the retirement age is not a good option. A lot of people have worked hard all of their lives ..."
When one woman told Braley her name was Marcia, Braley said enthusiastically: "That's my mom's name."
Braley's mother has played a key role in his campaign. She starred in his first TV ad, back in April. In early October, five days after he was knocked for delivering an unsmiling debate performance and an Iowa Poll showed him trailing Ernst by 6 points, he took his mom with him to a Des Moines senior center to deliver a pie she had baked, as national and Iowa reporters snapped pictures of the pair smiling and chatting.
Braley's pride in both of his parents is a big part of his stump speech. He talks about the "values I learned around the kitchen table growing up in Brooklyn, Iowa." His father enlisted in the Marine Corps at age 17 and, at 18, landed on Iwo Jima, "the morning the flags were raised on Mount Suribachi."
Byard Braley later married and had four children.
When Bruce was 2, his father fell 30 feet in an accident at the grain elevator he managed and shattered his right leg. During a nearly yearlong recovery, "without the safety net of workers' compensation payments," the family relied on relatives and friends for support, the candidate says.
"That's when I learned you're only as strong as the people who you care about, and what we do together matters," Braley told the Des Moines audience earlier this month.
Braley's low-key, but not surrogates
Braley also talks frequently on the trail about the many jobs he worked before becoming a lawyer -- janitor, construction worker, truck driver, dishwasher, bartender, cook and others.
"Each one of those jobs taught me something important: that if you do a job well, it doesn't matter what you're doing," he says. "It gives you dignity and a sense of purpose, and it gives your life meaning."
On the day the Register followed both U.S. Senate candidates on the campaign trail, Braley had just one public event, at the retirement home in Cedar Rapids, followed by a private event with Alliant Energy employees in downtown Cedar Rapids. According to audience members, he introduced himself, then grabbed the mic, stepped off the stage and took questions -- on immigration, the minimum wage, a short line railroad tax credit, a wind energy tax credit, and other issues.
"No topic got any real hot-blooded response. It was a warm, respectful reaction," said Bryan McGlothlin, vice president of Industrial Energy Applications, who attended the event at Alliant Tower. "He was very, very mellow -- not that he's an animated guy."
While Braley has been described as low-key in his campaign speeches, the opposite can be said of some of his surrogates. The superstars of the Democratic political world continue to troop to Iowa to stir up enthusiasm for him, including first lady Michelle Obama, former first lady Hillary Clinton, former President Bill Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden and Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who proffered fiery, fist-pumping rhetoric at last week's Des Moines rally.
A reporter from a French radio station who caught up with Braley in Cedar Rapids to give his listeners a taste of this fall's hottest American races, noted the grueling nature of campaigning, and asked Braley how he felt about going "door to door, people by people."
"This is Iowa. Talking to voters matters here," Braley answered. "Iowa voters are used to having presidential candidates visit with them every four years. They expect candidates for the Senate to be visible, to travel around the state and to talk to Iowans. I've been doing that."
WHAT BRALEY SAYS ON THE TRAIL
In his stump speeches, U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley raps his Republican rival, state Sen. Joni Ernst, for being "extreme."
He criticizes her for wanting to do away with the U.S. Department of Education, the Clean Water Act and other laws and programs that benefit Iowans. He skewers her for supporting a "personhood amendment" that would declare that life begins at conception. Braley says Ernst would have voted to shut down the federal government, and that "hard-line positions" like that aren't the way to end partisan gridlock.
In contrast, Braley's slogan is: "I'm a bridge builder, not a bridge burner." He tells Iowans he has a proven record of working with Republicans. He also says he has a history of championing veterans' issues.
He says he supports increasing the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour -- and that such a wage increase would put more money into the Social Security and Medicare trust funds. His other ideas for fixing Social Security's financial problems: Improve the economy and lift the cap on income subject to payroll taxes.