Democrats and Republicans fight like cats and dogs over just about any issue you can think of. But when it comes to farm programs, they often agree. That holds true for George W. Bush and John Kerry, who will face off for the presidency in November.

Despite their dwindling numbers, farmers enjoy a privileged place with politicians of both parties. One reason may be the strategic importance of the farm vote in years such as this. Political polls show the election may be decided by a handful of swing Midwestern farm states.

“The farm vote could be decisive,” said Jon Doggett, vice president for public policy at the National Corn Growers Association. “The farm vote is going to be important in Ohio, Minnesota, Iowa and Missouri — the Midwestern battleground states.”

This political year is also marked by a contentious debate over how to deal with health care and the rising federal budget deficit. Both could have a big impact on farmers.

The rising deficit could spur measures to cut domestic spending, putting farm programs on the chopping block.

Also, many farmers have to buy their own health insurance, or, if they can't afford the increasingly stiff premiums, they must go without and risk ruinous medical bills if something goes wrong.

Here in brief are the presidential candidates' positions on these and other critical farm issues.

AGRICULTURAL BIOTECHNOLOGY:

Bush has consistently supported ag biotechnology. Last year, his administration filed suit with the World Trade Organization to try and force Europe to lift its moratorium on biotech foods.

Kerry says he supports farmers' rights to use safe, approved and regulated biotechnology, and that he would work with foreign countries to address concerns.

TRADE:

“The Bush Administration has adopted the most aggressive free and fair trade agenda in history,” his office says. “President Bush understands that economic prosperity for farmers is tied to expansion of trade opportunities abroad.”

Kerry says he'd work to open new foreign markets for agriculture and repair damaged U.S. relationships with its trading partners.

“The real casualties in the trade war are American farmers,” he says. “Trade relationships must be repaired, and America must assure that the global economy works for farm families.”

SAFETY NET FOR AGRICULTURE:

Bush supports a safety net for farmers, as he did in the 2000 campaign. And his office notes that he signed the 2002 Farm Bill, which provides long-term security for farmers.

Kerry voted for the 2002 Farm Bill and said he's dedicated to maintaining a strong safety net to protect farmers against low prices. Kerry has also sponsored or supported legislation for drought relief, low-interest farm loans and improved crop and flood coverage.

ENERGY:

Bush wants to revamp the U.S. energy picture through conservation, new domestic oil and gas production, and through alternative technologies such as ethanol and hydrogen fuel.

Kerry favors energy conservation and wants to reduce U.S. reliance on foreign oil by investing in renewable fuels such as ethanol, biomass and biodiesel.

“Renewable energy, grown on American farms, must be part of America's energy future,” he says.

HEALTH INSURANCE:

Bush wants to hold down rising health care costs through malpractice liability reform, and make health insurance cheaper for self-employed workers by offering a tax credit for those who buy their own health insurance.

Kerry wants to hold down health care costs by reducing waste and inefficiency in the medical industry. He wants to cut prescription drug prices by allowing the importation of cheap drugs from Canada and use targeted tax cuts to allow more Americans to buy health insurance.

DEFICIT REDUCTION:

Bush has proposed cutting the deficit in half by limiting the growth of discretionary federal spending. “This will require that Congress focus on priorities, cut wasteful spending and be wise with the people's money,” he said in this year's State of the Union address.

Kerry says he would cut the deficit in half by rolling back tax cuts for the rich and by cutting so-called corporate welfare — big tax breaks for large corporations.

A Rising Federal Deficit

One of the biggest issues facing the next president will be the soaring federal deficit. Even though it isn't an obvious farm issue, farmers could be among those who suffer if budget control measures are implemented.

There are three ways to bring down the deficit — higher taxes, cuts in federal programs and a growing economy, which generates more tax revenue.

So far, economic growth hasn't done the trick. Moreover, the budget problem could get worse as the first wave of baby boomers reaches eligibility for Social Security in about four years and begins drawing benefits, The Wall Street Journal recently reported.

If higher taxes and program cuts are used to curb the deficit, farmers could get hit by both. Already, some military weapons programs are facing cutbacks to help control the budget, the Journal reports. That raises an a troubling question: If the military is getting hit by cuts while we are fighting two wars, could farm and other domestic programs also take a hit?

“The concern is that farm and other domestic programs could be cut,” says John Gordley, Washington lobbyist for the American Soybean Association. “We've been warned by Congressional agricultural committees that we could see budget reconciliation next year for the first time in 10 years.”

Budget reconciliation is the process of trying to get federal spending in line with budget goals.

“In the 1980s and early 1990s, Congress imposed across-the-board cuts on farm and other domestic programs on several occasions. Obviously, we're reluctant to see that approach used again,” says Gordley. “We certainly prefer growing the economy as a way to deal with the deficit.”

A Look At Top Farm Issues

A lot can change in the years between presidential elections. Four years ago, for example, the American Farm Bureau Federation listed the elimination of trade barriers, control of regulatory costs and the need for a temporary safety net for producers as the top three election issues for corn and soybean farmers.

This year, trade continues to be front burner issue, as does federal farm aid. But the need to control rocketing energy prices has now jumped to the forefront of farm concerns.

“American agriculture is a significant consumer of energy and a producer of renewable energy,” says Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman. “The energy bill is stalled (in Congress) and fuel prices are reaching as high as $3/gal. in some areas of the country. It will be crucial that we elect officials who will effectively change America's energy policy to meet today's energy needs while moving toward renewable energy sources in the future, which benefit all of agriculture, especially corn and soybean growers.”