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Harkin Scores Record Victory in Iowa Caucus

February 11, 1992|DAVE LESHER and RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITERS

DES MOINES — Campaigning all alone in the state where he has lived for 52 years, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin scored a landslide victory Monday in the first electoral contest of the 1992 presidential race.

As he promised, Harkin did better in Iowa's Democratic caucuses than any presidential candidate has ever done. He even exceeded former President Jimmy Carter's record of 59% in 1980. But the significance of his victory was limited because he faced almost no opposition.

With 91.2% of the precincts reporting, Harkin had 76.7% of the delegates selected at the 2,189 precinct caucuses. Monday night's contest was the first in a four-step process to select Iowa's 49 delegates to the Democratic National Convention, where 2,144 delegates are required for nomination. Delegates can change their minds anywhere along the line.

Harkin's nearest competition was "uncommitted," with 12%.

"Tonight you fired the shot that is going to be heard around this country and around the world," a jubilant Harkin told cheering supporters gathered at a Des Moines hotel. "I want you to know this campaign is on track, the train is on time and this engine has a full head of steam. Tonight we here in Iowa showed them how we do it. Now we take it to the rest of the country."

His four major opponents virtually ignored the state--and caucus-goers virtually ignored them. Former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas, who made a last-minute pitch for votes in Iowa by opening an office in Des Moines last Friday and mailing 18,000 campaign letters, was the second-ranked candidate with just 4%.

He was followed by Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton with 2.9%, Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey with 2.2% and former California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. with 1.5%.

The turnout was low, even for a caucus. No more than 25,000 of Iowa's 580,000 registered Democrats were estimated to have attended, or about 4% of those eligible. By contrast, 120,000, or 20%, attended in 1988.

Despite Harkin's victory, he is not expected to benefit from the traditional "Iowa bump" that winning candidates often get as they head from the caucuses into the New Hampshire primary a week from today. With nobody else campaigning in the state, Harkin had been expected to win big. As a result, these are the first Iowa caucuses in 20 years that are expected to have little effect on the presidential race.

Harkin, 52, spent the last weekend campaigning hard in Iowa's big and small towns, reminding his supporters that it is still important for them to attend their caucuses. "I think there's a lot of people out there who say, 'Ah, Harkin's going to win, what the heck, why do we have to go there?' " he told a cheering Des Moines audience over the weekend. "But I need a strong showing Monday night. I need you at those caucuses--and bring your friends."

Winter did nothing to hinder the event. The weather was good for the season--Sunday's snow melted during the day Monday, and temperatures hovered around 30.

But the caucus process itself discourages turnout. Unlike a primary, in which a voter can cast a ballot secretly and quickly, caucus-goers must make their stand in front of friends and neighbors. Democrats gather at neighborhood firehouses, churches and schoolrooms. They "vote" by standing in the area of the room designated for their candidate. The public nature of the process can lead to debates, pressure and intimidation.

Caucus rules require that supporters of any candidate who is not chosen by at least 15% of those present must disband and join another group. So, Harkin's opponents said earlier, their supporters might be deterred from participating because their effort could be worthless.

"We don't want to put them through that," said Craig Smith, Clinton's deputy campaign manager. "It's very hard in a public forum such as a caucus to stand up and say, 'I'm not for the hometown boy.' "

Harkin campaign manager Tim Raftis argued that his candidate should get a boost from winning in Iowa because it is an affirmation from his home-state voters, whom he described as very independent and well aware of the other campaigns.

"You have to ask for their support for President," he said. "This is not machine politics."

Precisely because the road to New Hampshire did not run through Iowa this year, the Democratic contest in 1992 differs significantly from any in the last 20 years.

Four years ago, for example, a little known Midwesterner--Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt--staked his presidential hopes on a toughly worded television commercial that bashed Korea for allegedly closing its markets to U.S. products. It helped him win the first vote of the year--Iowa.

This year, another little-known Midwesterner--Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey--used a toughly worded television commercial in which he bashed Japan for allegedly closing its markets to U.S. products. But Kerrey's ad aired in New Hampshire, and his poll numbers slumped noticeably after it aired. Eventually even the candidate dubbed it a "mistake."

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