IOWA DEMOCRATS have been complaining about the absence of serious presidential candidates to compete in their kickoff 1992 precinct caucuses next February. Well, they may have one hopeful in their very midst who could make those caucuses irrelevant in next year's political scheme of things.
Iowa's Democratic junior senator, Tom Harkin, is moving around the country preaching the old liberal Democratic gospel and, he says, being urged by those who hear him to take the message to the voters as a presidential candidate. Harkin says he hasn't decided yet, but will do so within the next two months.
A Harkin candidacy, while in itself likely to be regarded as a long shot, would probably all but scuttle the 1992 Iowa caucuses as a factor in the Democratic presidential sweepstakes, for an obvious reason. Other presidential aspirants would have a good reason to pass up the Iowa caucuses -- seen as a peril as well as an opportunity -- and move on to New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary eight days later.
"It clearly would diminish the importance of the caucuses this time around, no doubt about it," says Iowa's Democratic chairman, John Roehrick. His predecessor in that job and now Iowa's attorney general, Bonnie Campbell, agrees. "It would be the assumption on the part of other candidates," she says, "that there's no point running against a hometown boy. That would be a reason to stay away."
Although some Democratic activists who look forward to the caucuses the way kids anticipate the arrival of Santa Claus don't relish the idea of trading them for a live Iowa candidate, both Roehrick and Campbell say most are likely to take pride in having one of their own as a bona fide candidate for the presidency.
"If there's a viable candidate from Iowa," Roehrick says, "there's no reason he shouldn't run." While the state has relished its role in the past of winnowing down the field of candidates, he says, "Iowans would have a different role not limited to one day" when the caucuses are held.
The question is whether Harkin would be considered any more of a serious candidate if he won the caucuses in his own state against a field that didn't show up to contest him. Any real or
imagined boost that is said to be realized by the winner in the Iowa caucuses would hardly accrue to Harkin under those circumstances. The test for him, as for the Iowa no-shows, would be how he fared on neutral ground in New Hampshire and in tests thereafter.
One reason that Harkin's ruminations about running have not stirred a hornet's nest among Iowa Democrats who love to bask in the quadrennial spotlight afforded them by the national news media invasion for the caucuses is that they have yet to choose up sides. With only former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts a declared candidate, these Iowa activists, committed to various candidates by this time four years ago, are still waiting for the game to start and don't see Harkin as a peril to their favorite.
In advance of the 1988 caucuses, rumors circulated in Iowa that Harkin might run as a favorite-son candidate to give himself a broker's role with the other competing candidates, but he denies he ever considered the notion. Rather, he says, he stayed out in deference to his several Democratic friends who were competing in Iowa.
Harkin, at that time, was working hard toward becoming the first Democratic senator in Iowa's history ever to be re-elected, which he was in 1990. This time he could run for president without peril to his Senate seat and use the campaign as a forum for his liberal-populist ideas that he says are not being advanced by other Democrats.
While not being specifically critical of the Democratic Leadership Council that is trying to move the party rightward from its old New Deal moorings, Harkin says he fears, "a drift that the Democratic Party might try to emulate the Republicans," and that's why he's speaking out around the country. If he senses sufficient support for his message and for himself as the messenger, Harkin says, he may consider running.
As for the fate of the Iowa caucuses, he says, "many Iowans see this as an opportunity to do something different that may enhance the status of Iowa." And so he is continuing his travels, spreading the message -- and taking soundings.