The Rotarians in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, aren't much interested in section 20s, "woofies," or Eugene A. Ludwig.

That's a relief for House Banking Committee Chairman Jim Leach, who is campaigning for reelection in southeast Iowa and enjoying a respite from the technical wrangling over Glass-Steagall repeal and his yearlong feud with the comptroller of the currency.

In Cedar Rapids, the folks have more pressing concerns than expanding bank securities powers. At a 7 a.m. breakfast last Friday with the Rotary club, business people, teachers, and government officials grilled Rep. Leach on concerns held by most Americans: saving Medicare, preventing juvenile crime, and increasing wages.

Though his audience didn't raise banking issues, Rep. Leach managed to fit in praise for the U.S. banking system when questioned about turmoil in Russia. "There is no safe place for ordinary Russian citizens to put savings," he said. "We have an unbelievably honest system. Nobody in this room has dreamed of paying off a banker to get a loan."

Stumping through Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, and Davenport, Rep. Leach appeared to relish working the crowds. It's a good thing; he's facing his toughest race ever.

Challenging the 10-term Republican is Bob Rush, a 52-year-old Cedar Rapids lawyer and former state senator. Unlike past challengers, Mr. Rush has marshaled strong Democratic backing and a big campaign war chest. In fact, he was besting Rep. Leach at the fund-raising game, pulling in $340,642 through Sept. 30 versus the $293,136 reported by Rep. Leach to the Federal Election Commission.

Organized labor's political action committees have pumped in more than $88,000 to the Rush campaign since April. The American Trial Lawyers Association has also contributed $10,000. Rep. Leach, who does not accept PAC donations, has received much of his funding from local business leaders.

Still, as the race headed into its final weeks, Rep. Leach appeared in good shape to outspend his rival down the stretch. Cash on hand in his campaign fund totaled $112,229 at Sept. 30, more than twice what was left in Mr. Rush's coffers.

Polls taken by both sides showed Rep. Leach ahead, but Mr. Rush claimed he was closing in. "I'm the strongest challenger he's ever had," he said. "We're ahead of where we thought we'd be. It's going to be very close."

The 54-year-old incumbent said he isn't comfortable with his lead, given that Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and President Clinton were expected to carry Iowa's First Congressional District.

"My district is probably the most solidly Democratic nonurban district in the country," Rep. Leach said.

Despite the Democratic demographics, Rep. Leach was clearly energized by campaigning in Cedar Rapids, a city of 109,000. With an American Banker reporter in tow, he dived into the day's schedule. After breakfast, he headed to Washington High School for a chat with economics and social studies classes.

Despite his professorial speaking style, Rep. Leach was a big hit with the students, and a crowd gathered around him before he reached the school's auditorium.

For lunch, Rep. Leach stopped at Konecny's in Cedar Rapids' Czech Village. He gambled on the fried turtle, one of the diner's specials. Later, the congressman admitted that his choice had come in a "distant third" to the baked ham and meat loaf ordered by a staff aide and the tag- along reporter.

But when a waitress checked in, he graciously allowed that his meal was "good turtle." A few local businessmen dropped by the table to introduce their children and co-workers.

After lunch, Rep. Leach checked in with his office again and promised to help a group of farmers use a Small Business Administration loan program to buy a turkey processing plant from a large corporation.

Back on the campaign trail, Rep. Leach returned to Washington High School to talk with participants in a national debate competition and later joined state and local government officials at the ribbon cutting for an $8 million printing plant in Hiawatha, a town just north of Cedar Rapids.

Although Rep. Leach's record has generated strong support, his opponent is pushing hard to energize the area's Democratic majority. Mr. Rush has followed the Democratic Party's lead by casting his Republican rival as a right-wing disciple of House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

By attacking Rep. Leach's votes to limit Medicare spending and by blasting the House Banking Committee's 1995 Whitewater investigation, Mr. Rush hopes to cast doubt on Rep. Leach's reputation as a moderate Republican.

In particular, Mr. Rush complained that the Whitewater investigation had distracted Rep. Leach from constituent matters. "From Iowans' standpoint, there are more important things than what happened in Arkansas 20 years ago," Mr. Rush has said.

On banking issues, Mr. Rush has charged that Rep. Leach tried to weaken educational funding by pushing to slash the government's direct-lending programs for college tuition. He also criticized Rep. Leach for an effort to weaken the Community Reinvestment Act.

"CRA needs to be preserved," he said. "I feel like he's tried to roll it back too far."

Rep. Leach denounced Mr. Rush's assertions during an interview with the editorial board of the Cedar Rapids Gazette. "My voting record is one of the seven or eight most independent in Congress," he said, "yet my opponent has suggested I'm tied at the hip to Newt."

Rep. Leach pointed to his co-sponsorship of legislation to raise the minimum wage, which passed over the objections of Republican leaders, as proof of his independence.

On Whitewater, he insisted he was simply doing his job as banking committee chairman. Rep. Leach also bristled at the suggestion that Whitewater had distracted him.

He pointed to recently passed legislation to capitalize the Savings Association Insurance Fund and to ease banks' regulatory burden as his panel's primary accomplishments. Also, he argued that his unsuccessful effort to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act had brought the warring bank, securities, and insurance industries closer to a deal - setting the stage for action in the next Congress.

"The banking committee had as active a legislative term as any in history," he told the Gazette's editors.

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