DES MOINES, Iowa -- For a generation, Iowa has been the field of presidential dreams.
Every four years, guided by near-religious faith in this state's ability to make White House fantasies come true, presidential candidates have flocked to the Iowa caucuses.
But next year, they won't come.
At least, that's what politicians think would happen if Iowa's junior senator, Tom Harkin, goes through with plans to run for president.
"You could argue that it takes Iowa off the map," says Paul Goldman, top strategist for Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, another potential Democratic candidate.
Mr. Harkin, who has formed a presidential exploratory committee, says he'll decide by Labor Day if he's running. Last week, he made a campaign swing through New Hampshire, the first primary state, and friends say he isn't turning back.
With a popular favorite son destined to finish first in February's precinct caucuses, other candidates might well conclude that Iowa is a waste of scarce time and campaign money. If the candidates bypass the caucuses, the news media would, too, further diminishing their national significance.
"That diminishment may be down to that far," concedes John Roehrick, the Iowa Democratic Party chairman, his thumb and forefinger a scant quarter-inch apart.
The death of the caucuses as a major event could have far-reaching consequences.
In political terms, it could further reduce the ability of a little-known candidate to win the nomination. Two of the last three presidents, George Bush and Jimmy Carter, owe their national prominence in large measure to unexpectedly strong showings in Iowa, the place the nomination process formally begins.
For this Corn Belt state, it would mean the end of a cottage industry that has blossomed into an economic force and mid-winter tourist draw.
The caucuses have yielded millions of dollars' worth of indirect benefits over the years, mainly through free publicity.
In 1988, the caucuses also pumped an estimated $25 million into the local economy, mainly through increased business for hotels, restaurants, and other enterprises that catered to thousands of campaign staffers, journalists and political camp followers.
The prospect that Iowa might become nothing more than a footnote terrifies businessmen like Prasong Nurack, a Des Moines restaurateur.
"That's bad news," remarks the chef-proprietor of the Taste of Thailand, a political hangout whose business was up 10 percent to 20 percent in the six months before the last caucuses.
Already, Mr. Harkin's undeclared candidacy has frozen what little presidential activity there was in Iowa. Governor Wilder's exploratory campaign, which had been expected to open a storefront headquarters in Des Moines this spring, has apparently put that idea on hold.
The only declared candidate in the race, former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas, says he'll go through with plans to spend a two-week family vacation in Iowa next month. After that, he'll reassess his strategy.
"A lot depends on Harkin," says Emily Smith, the Tsongas campaign's Iowa coordinator.
Even the Iowa Democratic Party, which became perhaps the strongest grass-roots party organization in the country as a result of the caucuses, could suffer if its titular head runs for president. Previous caucuses have attracted thousands of new activists, and the presence of presidential contenders helped generate an extra $250,000 and $500,000 at fund-raising events for the state party and local candidates, one former official estimates.
Now the debt-ridden party may have to find other sources of income. Candidates who use a Harkin candidacy as a reason to skip Iowa next year won't be renting the party's computerized list of Democratic activists -- at $10,000 a throw.
"Iowa Democrats are having to come to grips with the realities of the Harkin candidacy and its potential effects on the caucus system and our role nationally," said Lowell L. Junkins, a former state Senate president.
Party leaders maintain that Iowa was destined to decline in importance anyway after 1988, when the caucus winners, Democratic Representative Richard A. Gephardt and Republican Sen. Bob Dole, went nowhere and the eventual nominees, Michael S. Dukakis and Mr. Bush, finished third here.
So far, criticism of Mr. Harkin has been muted, in part because party leaders and the hard-core activists who live for the caucuses are many of the same folks who have gone tothe mat for Mr. Harkin in two statewide races, including his 1990 campaign, the first time an Iowa Democrat ever won re-election to the Senate.
"They would much rather have a president from Iowa than have caucuses every four years to pick a candidate who loses," says Stephen J. Rapp of Cedar Rapids, the Linn County Democratic chairman and a Harkin supporter.
To some extent, Iowans are prisoners of their rhetoric about the caucuses, which they celebrate as one of the last places in America where presidential candidates must woo voters face-to-face and where any hopeful, no matter how obscure, stands a chance.
"This is the time for Iowans to prove up that the caucus and their pride in it and all that good stuff are less important than who is picked as president of the United States," says Des Moines attorney A. Arthur Davis, a former state Democratic Party chief.
Why should Mr. Harkin be prevented from running for president, he asks, "just because he happens to be from Iowa?"
But others question whether a long-shot Harkin candidacy isn't too big a price to pay. "Asking people to bet the caucuses is a mighty high roll of the dice," says Barry Piatt, a former state party spokesman and one-time Harkin aide.
Those Democrats who feel Mr. Harkin is putting personal ambition above state and party are keeping quiet for now. No one seems eager to pick a fight with the powerful senator, especially since he could still decide to back out of the race in time for other candidates to come here.
Morris Knopf, chairman of the Greater Des Moines Chamber of Commerce's '92 caucus project, says business leaders are comfortable with the notion that a Harkin candidacy might drive all that lucrative campaign trade to some other state next winter.
"He's been an awfully good senator, and we're not about to get into that situation," Mr. Knopf said.