There was a time when Steve Rathje was a laid-off welder, living on free cheese and powdered milk given away to the needy.
"There was a point where I was standing in line for welfare just to be able to buy diapers for my child," he says. "I told myself that wasn't ever going to happen again."
So he climbed to the top in a manufacturing firm, learning as he went, and then started his own company, and then a second, going from nothing to being the leader of a multi-million-dollar industry.
And now he says he can help to initiate the same kind of turn-around for his country.
Rathje brought his campaign for Congress to Storm Lake this week, aiming to upset the familiar Democrat who has won nine straight elections to the House and then the Senate since the mid 1970s.
The Cedar Rapids businessman and conservative Republican Rathje thinks Tom Harkin may be finally vulnerable.
"I believe it is time," he said. "People have gotten tired of tax and spend Democrats, the kind who would cut and run from our enemies."
His party has always trotted out politicians with a record to tackle Harkin. "We will be defeated again if that is the route we take."
Instead, Rathje is running as a businessman with no political baggage.
He says that he wants to see the government run the way any good business would be.
"I'm out marketing myself as you would market a product," he says of his campaign, which by the primary will be three years old. As he rolled into Storm Lake, he said the odometer was turning over 200,000 miles of stumping, which has taken him to all 99 counties in Iowa at least once.
"I'm going to save this country 30 percent on everything by treating Washington just like a business - maybe much more," he says. "I don't like earmarks - any earmarks. Every dime the goverment spends should come to a vote of Congress, and we have to look at every bit of it to see where there is an opportunity for savings."
The bottom line, he says, is cutting taxes - for citizens of all classes, and especially for small business. "It is those small businesses that really make our economy run," he says.
He said he is tired of frivilous government spending - including the proposed "rain forest" project in Iowa; he scoffed at that idea, and went on to roll his eyes at a new proposal by presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to establish a new "poverty czar" department in government.
"Just another layer of bureaucracy," he says.
Rathje is a proponent of tax reform, leaning toward the "Fair Tax" system discussed some years ago, and admits that while he runs a large industry, he can't handle the complexities of his own income tax forms. "I have it done for me and I still get audited every year," he smiles. "It is high time we simplified."
On the Farm Bill debate, he had harsh words for Harkin and his fellow Democrats. "You know what they are doing - just trying to wait it out until after the election, in hopes they have a Democrat in office. It's stalling, and it's not right. I don't think we need all the entitlements, or to have things like Food Stamps messed up in a Farm Bill. All the farmers tell me they really want is a piece of legislation that says they will be okay, they will be taken care if they ever face a real crisis situation."
As far as bringing jobs back to Iowa, a business model again will help, Rathje claims.
In doing his business as a manufacturer of outsourced parts for other industries, he said he has gone after the work that had been sent overseas.
"We look at the products they provided, and 30 percent of it has to be thrown away for scrap because it isn't up to standards. When you consider all the costs associated with doing business out of the country - we come within 3 percent of the Chinese on costs despite the low wages they pay," he said.
If political leaders learn to treat voters more like stockholders, they will begin to "think outside the box" and find ways to create more jobs and more entrepreneurial business, he feels.
He said he would support leaving troops in Iraq for as long as needed, and predicted "the biggest bloodbath in history" if U.S. troops are pulled out too soon, especially if a departure date is pre-announced.
"I don't want to debate why we are there. I believe the surge is working. When the task is done and Iraq can stand up on it's own, we can come home with dignity."
A strong Christian who says he won't "beat anybody over the head with Bible," Rathje nonetheless is unwavering on what he feels are core value issues - ensuring the sanctity of marriage between only a man and a woman, opposing abortion and "defending God's name, in the schools and in the Pledge of Liberty."
On education, he said his goal would be to get the federal government out of the classroom and leave educational decisions to the states. "There's not a word from the founding fathers in the Constitution that they felt the federal government was responsible for providing education," he says.
The real education issue is one government can't solve - a lack of parental involvement in the schools, Rathje added.
He has asked teachers in his travels about the No Child Left Behind legislation, and always hears complaints that it in an unfunded mandate.
"But when I ask them what they would do with the money, they never have an answer. Textbooks, computers? Pens and pencils? No - so what do we do with all that money? I want to know."
Oil prices are another key issue for the Republican hopeful, who isn't in the tree-hugging camp.
"The reason gas is so expensive is that we have too many regulations on the industry," he says. He is a proponent of drilling the Alaskan refuge land and the offshore regions along the U.S. coasts, as well as building more refineries. When the Middle East sees this, they will drop their prices for oil, he feels.
At the same time, the U.S. needs to look at more nuclear, wind and possibly hydrogen energy, he said.
Campaigning against a Congressman with the name recognition of Harkin is no easy task, he admits. Still, Harkin was ranked number eight on a list of the top ten Senate seats most likely to be turned over, by the Washington Post, Rathje said.
"People are embarrassed over things he has been doing," he says of the incumbent. "I gather it is time."