EVER SINCE Jimmy Carter put the Iowa precinct caucuses on the political map in 1976 by using them to launch his long shot presidential candidacy, out-of-staters in both major parties have groused about the inordinate influence they have had in the presidential selection process.
By establishing the caucuses as the kickoff to selection of national convention delegates each presidential election year, Iowa has become a lure for national network television and major newspaper coverage that is the envy of politicians elsewhere. That's why, every four years, there are complaints and efforts to deny Iowa its role as host to the presidential campaign curtain-raiser. It's also argued that Iowa is not a representative state -- too rural, too white, too agricultural -- to be a fair test of national political sentiment.
But efforts to sidetrack the early Iowa caucuses have always failed because there has been no practical way for any other state to move its own caucuses or presidential primary election ahead of Iowa on the calendar, or force Iowa to move its date back. The state has a law saying it will be first in the delegate-selection process no matter what.
Threats by the Democratic Party not to recognize Iowa delegates elected in the early caucuses have been meaningless, because being first has meant more to Iowa -- it's said as much as $30 million is spent in the state as a result of the kickoff caucuses -- than the relatively few delegates Iowa sends to the convention -- 57 Democrats, or only 1.3 percent of the total, next year.
In the coming presidential season, however, the Iowa caucuses as a significant factor appear at last to be cut down to size, but not by the chronically complaining out-of-staters. Instead, it is an Iowan -- Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin -- who will probably do in the state's foremost political institution by the simple device of // running for president himself.
Harkin's announcement of candidacy in nearby Winterset the other day is expected to reduce the once critical Iowa caucuses to an exercise in state pride, producing overwhelming support for Harkin and keeping most if not all of the other Democratic candidates from making anything approaching a full-bore effort to win when Iowans gather to express their presidential preference next Feb. 10.
The party's first declared candidate, former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, spoke early of making a major effort here, but has since backed off. Another likely candidate, Sen. Bob Kerrey of neighboring Nebraska, has been making phone calls to important Democratic leaders in Iowa, saying he intends to compete here, but most Iowans active in the Democratic caucuses in the past are either signing up with Harkin or lying low. One such party veteran counseled Kerrey to start flying in and out of Des Moines on trips home and holding airport press conferences, but not spending a dime trying to buck Harkin.
When Harkin first indicated interest in seeking the presidency next year, there was grumbling about how such a move would destroy the special role Iowans have had through the caucuses in the presidential sweepstakes. But that grumbling never amounted to anything, in part because nothing was happening in Iowa this year anyway in terms of presidential politics, and Iowans see Harkin's candidacy as another way to play a key role.
K? "Why would you want to be against him?" asks Chuck Gifford,
political head of the United Auto Workers in the state, of fellow Iowa Democrats. "It's going to be good for Iowa politics . . . There's a life after [the] Iowa [caucuses]. We can't just look at how it impacts here. I'll forgo any of the niceties that are supposed to flow out of that to nominate a candidate [from Iowa]."
A former Democratic state chairman, Arthur Davis, says other candidates may challenge Harkin in Iowa "because sooner or later everyone will start playing the expectations game," setting modest goals that they can meet or surpass and hope to get credit for doing so.
Meanwhile, state party chairman John Roehrick has invited all the actual and prospective Democratic candidates to the annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner on Nov. 2 -- the event that was a springboard for Carter going into 1976.
Whether they come this time around should tell whether the Iowa caucuses will be a factor in 1992, or just a home state warm up for Harkin.