DES MOINES — The Iowa caucuses are supposed to provide the first answers in the presidential nomination race. But this year, they may only supply questions.
In its final days, the contest has become an unprecedented four-way sprint that is pushing the candidates to the limits of their skills and endurance. Yet when they look up after the results Monday night, the Democrats may find they haven't moved very far from the starting line in their competition.
The caucuses frequently have buried rather than launched candidates -- identifying losers instead of anointing winners in the nomination process. This year, though, with the candidates packed together so closely in the polls, Iowa may not play that winnowing function.
Depending on the order of finish, all of the major candidates who competed here -- former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri and Sens. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina -- could wake up Tuesday with enough strength and credibility to sustain their campaigns.
A pile-up finish in Iowa would immediately increase the incentive for these contenders to open fire on retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, who has built a powerful wave of momentum in New Hampshire while ignoring the caucuses. Such attacks, on issues from Clark's previous votes for Republican presidents to his work as a lobbyist, are escalating even before the Iowa race concludes.
"I think Wesley Clark will quickly become the issue in the week between Iowa and New Hampshire," said a senior advisor to one of the other Democrats. "People look at him, in military terms, as a very soft target."
Longer-term, a close finish in Iowa could set in motion a dynamic Democrats haven't seen since 1976: a series of showdowns, with different candidates squaring off in different states as they struggle to target limited time and money.
South Carolina's primary Feb. 3 could emerge as a battle among Clark, Edwards, Dean and Gephardt; Michigan's caucuses Feb. 7 as a confrontation between Dean and Gephardt, and perhaps Kerry; Wisconsin as a face-off between Dean and Clark or Edwards.
What's changed since 1976 is that the nomination calendar has been so condensed and front-loaded that even a wide-open competition would play out over weeks, not months -- intensifying the pressure on candidates to make rapid decisions about where and when to fight.
"People are going to have to make very strategic decisions very quickly about where they settle down to take a stand," said Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, which is backing Dean.
Even when Iowa has delivered a decisive result, its effect on the contests that follow has been mixed. In the seven contested races since 1972, four Democrats who finished first in Iowa won the New Hampshire primary. The three others went on to lose in New Hampshire.
The Republican winner in the three contested Iowa caucuses since 1980 lost in New Hampshire each time.
William Mayer, a political scientist at Northeastern University in Boston, said the Iowa caucuses have influenced the ultimate result in both parties far less than the New Hampshire contest.
Mayer said Iowa's effect generally has been fleeting even in the Granite State, with the occasional exception such as Gary Hart, whose second-place finish in the caucuses ignited his upset victory over Walter Mondale in New Hampshire's 1984 primary.
The latest polling in New Hampshire shows Dean still leading, but dropping to about 30%, with Clark running a strong second at more than 20% and Kerry ticking back up to 15% or higher.
Tremors from Iowa might rattle that configuration. A Kerry win here or a close second-place finish probably would further fuel his recovery in New Hampshire. Conversely, even a narrow defeat in Iowa could depress Dean's support in New Hampshire, though independent analysts and strategists for his rivals believe he is near his floor of hard-core backers in the state.
Indeed, if Kerry and Edwards gain strength from the Iowa results and Dean loses some, the New Hampshire race could replicate Iowa, with those three candidates and Clark bunching together.
A parade of past White House hopefuls -- from Democrats John Glenn, Alan Cranston and Bruce Babbitt to Republicans Howard Baker and Jack F. Kemp -- learned in Iowa they were not going to be president. And Iowa could still play its grim reaper role Monday.
The risk in Iowa seems greatest for Gephardt, who won the state in his failed 1988 nomination bid and has repeatedly stressed its importance to his candidacy this year. Strategists for other campaigns say that though Gephardt could try to regroup in Michigan, it is difficult to see how he would raise enough money to seriously contest for the nomination if he doesn't win Iowa, especially if he finishes back in the pack.