DES MOINES, IOWA — DES MOINES, Iowa -- Nearly 20 years ago, a little-known one-term governor from Georgia named Jimmy Carter set his sights on the Iowa precinct caucuses of 1976 and eventually walked away with the presidency. Since then, other presidential hopefuls of both major parties have tried the same formula: an early and regular presence in the state in the hope of garnering a publicity windfall by winning or just surprising in the caucuses, which kick off the selection process for national convention delegates every presidential election year.

Last night, no fewer than seven Republican aspirants to the White House were on the schedule of speakers for a party fund-raising rally that constituted the first "cattle show" in a key state of the 1996 election cycle. That number matched the previous high of contenders in either party in the last half-century. Seven also sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1980, won by Ronald Reagan -- after losing the Iowa caucuses to George Bush.


But the seven current hopefuls -- former Bush Cabinet members Dick Cheney, Lamar Alexander and Lynn Martin; Senators Phil ** Gramm of Texas and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania; former Gov. Thomas H. Kean of New Jersey; and news commentator Patrick J. Buchanan, who opposed Mr. Bush in 1992 but missed the Iowa caucuses filing deadline -- are only part of a potential record field of Republicans.

The two men regarded as the early front-runners for the nomination, Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole and former Bush Housing Secretary Jack Kemp, stayed away. Mr. Dole, who associates say likes to call himself "president of Iowa" because he won the 1988 caucuses and has been a frequent party fund-raiser here ever since, apparently felt he didn't need to come. He already has the manager of his 1988 caucus effort, Tom Synhorst, asking the Iowa faithful to stand by for a decision in February on whether the senator will run for president again.


Mr. Kemp was scheduled to appear at the rally but canceled when it developed into a gathering of prospective 1996 candidates.

Darrell Kearney, heading the Kemp-in-'96 effort in the state, said Mr. Kemp did not want to contribute to a focus on 1996 while important elections this year must be addressed, including the bid for a fourth four-year term by Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad.

Other absentees last night, but considered possible '96 presidential candidates, include former Vice President Dan Quayle, former Reagan Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, former Bush Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Governors Pete Wilson of California (if he wins re-election in November) and William Weld of Massachusetts.

The first and most obvious reason for the bumper crop is the perception in Republican ranks that President Clinton, a 43 percent winner in 1992, can be beaten in 1996. That's especially so if the economy turns sour, his remaining legislative agenda becomes gridlocked, and his personal problems -- the Whitewater case and the Paula Jones allegations -- inflict further political wounds.

Another reason is that a whole generation of ambitious %o Republicans has had to wait a long time to get a crack at the party nomination. In 1968 and 1972, Richard M. Nixon was nominated easily. In 1976, Gerald Ford, as the unelected incumbent, was challenged only by Ronald Reagan; in 1980 and 1984 Mr. Reagan had clear sailing after his Iowa caucus upset at Mr. Bush's hands; in 1988 and 1992, Mr. Bush was in the driver's seat as Mr. Reagan's heir apparent and then as the incumbent.

Somewhat surprising at first glance is that so many Republicans would come into Mr. Dole's backyard to make an early down payment on the 1996 Iowa caucus competition. A Des Moines Register poll last month had him running well ahead of the field with 25 percent of Republicans surveyed, trailed by Mr. Kemp with 14 percent, retired Gen. Colin Powell with 9, Mr. Baker and Mr. Quayle with 8 each, Mr. Cheney with 6 and Mr. Bennett with 4. Mr. Powell has given no sign that he will be a candidate, or even any indication that he is a Republican.

Although Mr. Dole has asked supporters not to commit to anyone else, other prospective candidates harbor hopes or suspicions that he won't run, or that he can be beaten in his third presidential try if he does. His age -- he will be 71 next month -- is raised as a barrier by some, although he seems to be in top condition and has been campaigning for the party with his customary vigor.

One former Dole adviser, David Keene, suggests that if the Republicans should recapture the Senate in November and return Mr. Dole to the post of Senate majority leader he held from late 1984 to 1986, he may just decide to hold onto that job rather than give it up "for a shot at a job he may not be able to get."


The flocking to Iowa of all these Republicans does not assure that they will be contending when the Iowa caucuses roll around about 20 months from now. But Iowa, together with the New Hampshire first-in-the-nation primary, offers candidates without a barrel of money an early opportunity to reap a publicity windfall, and raise more money, by faring well in the state.

The decision or contemplation of much larger states, such as LTC California, New York and Ohio, to advance their primary dates on the 1996 political calendar in a sense increases the attractiveness of relatively low-budget Iowa and New Hampshire most of the candidates.

Veteran Republican consultant Charles Black says a candidate will need about $5 million in hand by the end of the Iowa and New Hampshire voting to compete in the 20 or more states that will hold primaries or caucuses in the next month. As of now, he says, only Mr. Gramm approaches having that much, although Mr. Dole could raise that amount quickly.

Even if Mr. Dole were to run away with the Iowa caucuses, the runner-up could well get a major boost. In 1984, Sen. Gary Hart finished a relatively weak second in Iowa, with 16.5 percent of the caucus vote, to 49 percent for the eventual Democratic presidential nominee, Walter F. Mondale. But such a flood of news media attention came his way as a result, along with money, that he went on to beat Mr. Mondale in New Hampshire and give him a genuine scare before losing the nomination.

So between now and early 1996, when Iowans inaugurate the voting process that will produce the Republican nominee, would-be presidents figure to be a dime a dozen in the state. At the same time, if Mr. Black is right, they will have to be out around the country hustling for money if they are to survive as serious contenders, no matter how they fare in Iowa and New Hampshire. Critics who say presidential campaigns start too early, and last too long, once again will have plenty of cause to complain.