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Lavishly Courted Voters to Decide : Iowa's Epic Campaign Finally Nears the End

February 07, 1988|JOHN BALZAR | Times Political Writer

DES MOINES — Finally.

Those who guessed it would never end guessed wrong. The epic campaign for Iowa concludes Monday, and the most sought-after and lavishly courted voters in the history of the Republic get their say in the race for President.

Stand back and sing it out again: Finally.

Candidate-for-candidate, voter-to-voter, there has been nothing like it.

Democratic Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri has been working the state intently since April, 1985. Republican Vice President George Bush began grooming his organization way back in 1980.

Six other major Democrats and five more leading Republicans make up the presidential baker's dozen. And all but two are aching for something from Monday night's caucus voting. Maybe it's to be lifted into the ranks of the contenders. Or, a good bounce into the New Hampshire primary the following week.

Beating the other guy is only one way to win. The other is to beat expectations.

Only Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr., a Democrat, and former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., a Republican, found the going so unfavorable that they pulled out to fight again in a subsequent battle.

Those who stayed found Iowa a hardened, demanding and, yes, self-absorbed state.

Part of the campaign became an endurance contest to see who could visit all 99 of Iowa's counties. Gephardt did, and between them, Republican Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas and his wife, Elizabeth, did too.

Candidates measured their time on the stump here not in days or weeks, but months. The Des Moines Register newspaper ran a box score of how many days each candidate spent here, and was ready with bare-knuckle editorial-page rebuttals to critics who questioned when enough was too much.

After all, not just tradition underlies voting here. It is the law of the state of Iowa for it to vote first--even if that vote is in a caucus rather than a regular primary.

A caucus is nothing but a neighborhood meeting of the political parties, Democrats in one spot and Republicans in another. On Monday, the gatherings convene at 7 p.m.

In this voting for each party's nominee, the great imperatives of Iowa are two: human nature and Mother Nature. Monday's forecast was for lows from 10 below to 10 above, with a chance of snow. This raised the possibility of a reduced turnout among the elderly and constituencies who are only casually committed.

"Some of my older people are warning me if it's 10-below Monday, they can't handle it," says Sanny Thompson, coordinator for Bush in Marshall County.

Otherwise, virtually any Iowan with grit enough to face the chill and with the disposition for political assemblies can attend.

Stand Up for Candidate

Democrats do their voting in the open for all to see, literally "standing up" in groups for a candidate. Republicans cast secret ballots.

The results will be a measure of participants' preferences only. Actual nominating delegates to the national conventions will be chosen in the summer, and they may or may not reflect the results of Monday's voting.

Critics of the Iowa system delight in noting that recent elections in Haiti were considered a failure of democracy in part because only 30% or so of the voters participated. Here, only 20% of the voters take part--perhaps 120,000 in each party.

Still, driven by overpowering curiosity to finally find some winners and losers in this campaign, more than a few reporters set up residence in Iowa long enough ago that they could legally vote in the caucuses.

By today, an estimated 2,500 journalists are on hand--enough to put one in each of Iowa's 2,487 caucus precincts. Reporters are frequently seen reporting stories about the work of other reporters. Anyone in downtown Des Moines without a chain full of passes and credentials around his neck is fair game for TV crews stationed all over town hungry for person-on-the-street interviews.

Half of the nation's supply of trucks capable of beaming remote television signals to satellites are said to be on station here for the newscasters to proclaim: "Live from Des Moines!"

Elusive Rooms, Cars

Hotel rooms and rental cars are as difficult to find as a natural suntan.

In past elections, Iowa got famous--or notorious, depending on how you look at it--as a place where a surprise can happen, such as Jimmy Carter's unexpected second-place finish here in 1976 ("uncommitted" took first place).

Perhaps the memorable dynamic this time will be the phenomenon of debates. As never before, this became the campaign of debates. Depending on one's definition of debate, Democrats had nearly 20, of which 10 were in Iowa. Republicans had fewer than half as many. Frequently, the encounters lasted two hours.

With the Democrats and Republicans having more agreement than disagreements among themselves, it proved to be a repetitive, numbing experience. Some campaign watchers suggested the interminable debates contributed to widespread impressions that the field of candidates lacked stature.

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