When VeraSun Energy inaugurated an ethanol-processing plant in Charles City, Iowa, last summer, some of that industry's most prominent boosters showed up. Leaders of the National Corn Growers' Association and the Renewable Fuels Association, for instance, came to help cut the ribbon - and so did Senator Barack Obama.
Then running far behind Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton in name recognition and in the polls, Obama was in the midst of a campaign swing through the state where he would eventually register his first caucus victory. And as befits a senator from Illinois, the country's second largest producer of corn, he delivered a ringing endorsement of ethanol as an alternative fuel.
Obama is running as a reformer who is seeking to reduce the influence of special interests. But like any other politician, he has powerful constituencies that help shape his views. And when it comes to domestic ethanol, almost all of which is made from corn, he also has advisers and prominent supporters with close ties to the industry at a time when energy policy is a point of sharp contrast between the parties and their presidential candidates.
In the heart of the Corn Belt that August day, Obama argued that embracing ethanol as a substitute for gasoline "ultimately helps our national security, because right now we're sending billions of dollars to some of the most hostile nations on earth."
America's oil dependence, he added, "makes it more difficult for us to shape a foreign policy that is intelligent and is creating security for the long term."
Nowadays, when Obama travels in farm country, he is sometimes accompanied by his friend and surrogate, Tom Daschle. A former Senate majority leader from South Dakota, Daschle serves on the boards of three ethanol companies and works at a Washington law firm where, according to his online job description, "he spends a substantial amount of time providing strategic and policy advice to clients in renewable energy."
Obama's lead adviser on energy and environmental issues, Jason Grumet, came to the campaign from the National Commission on Energy Policy, an initiative associated with Daschle and with Bob Dole, also a former Senate majority leader and big ethanol backer, who had close ties to the agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland, or ADM.