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Candidate: Nothing Lightweight About Weather

May 31, 1996

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) _ Long before she decided to run for Congress, Connie McBurney’s weather forecasts had made her a household name throughout Iowa’s sprawling 4th District.

``I remember the first time I saw you wearing that bright red blazer and I thought `I wish I could do that,‴ gushed Karen Karaidos, a constituent who met the candidate recently. ``I was so jealous.″

McBurney merely smiled over the luncheon table. After 24 years as a weather forecaster on a leading television station in town, it’s the kind thing she’s heard before.

Now McBurney is running for the Democratic nomination in central and western Iowa, and carrying along the kind of name identification other aspiring politicians can only envy.

As a result, the national Democratic Party has high hopes that she can reverse one of its most painful losses during the 1994 GOP rout. The Republican she hopes to challenge, Rep. Greg Ganske, ousted Democrat Neal Smith, who had held the seat since the 1950s.

It’s McBurney’s first run for public office, but her celebrity status gets her a lot more respect than most first-time candidates. The television station where she used to work is beamed throughout most of the district, which runs from Des Moines more than 100 miles west to the Missouri River.

Not only that, but local television stations feature extensive weather segments and build their forecasters as celebrities.

McBurney ran a promotional segment where the station gave cash grants to small towns for community improvements, and she originated newscasts from each little town as the award was granted.

``They don’t think of me as a first-timer because I’ve been around so long,″ McBurney said.

In the race for the June 4 primary, McBurney largely ignores her opponent, former state Rep. Jack Hatch, a far more traditional candidate.

``It’s incredibly frustrating,″ Hatch said. ``The most difficult part of this campaign is engaging my opponent.″

McBurney said she’s merely avoiding the sort of nasty primary fight that would leave the winner damaged.

``The important thing for Democrats is to beat Ganske,″ McBurney said.

Hatch is a former state legislator, congressional aide and community activist who is issue-driven. At a recent breakfast, he lectured Democrats on everything from loans to countries that harvest rain forests to raising taxes on cigarettes.

Democratic leaders see McBurney’s celebrity status as a big asset, even though she’s a newcomer.

``It plays in the primary in the sense that she doesn’t have to invest the same resources Jack does to get name ID,″ Iowa Democratic Chairman Mike Peterson said. ``She already has it. Democrats know who she is.″

With few big policy differences and not many debates, it’s been something of a quiet campaign. The closest thing to a flare up came when rumors swirled that McBurney had once belonged to an animal rights group.

Raised on a southern Iowa farm, she shrugged off those rumors.

``The truth is: never been there, never done that,″ she said. ``I’ve milked a goat, I’ve shown a steer and I love steak.″

While many television personalities have switched to politics, it’s still unusual for a weather forecaster to do it.

McBurney dismisses any suggestions that forecasting is lightweight preparation for politics. ``There’s nothing lightweight about being a provider of information that people need,″ she said. ``They don’t see it as lightweight at all. They see it as caring.″

There have been no independent polls in the primary fight, but there’s at least one clear signal of where the race stands. Ganske has launched commercials attacking McBurney even before the primary. He’s ignored Hatch.

McBurney also dismisses suggestions she’s seeking to play on her celebrity. She left the television station two years ago and went to work at a Des Moines hospital as a children’s advocate.

Also on Tuesday’s primary ballot is a three-way GOP race to pick a challenger to two-term Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin.

Rep. Jim Ross Lightfoot faces state Rep. Steve Grubbs and State Sen. Maggie Tinsman in that primary. Lightfoot is backed by most of the GOP’s establishment and is favored to win.

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