WASHINGTON -- Gov. Pete Wilson's decision to run up the white flag in the Iowa presidential precinct caucuses five months before they take place is a recognition that he was going nowhere in the nation's first state to select Republican convention delegates.
In one sense he was doing no more than cutting his losses early and saving his campaign money for the New Hampshire primary eight days later, and subsequent tests.
But pulling out of the high-profile Iowa campaign will have costly ramifications. The very fact that the other candidates will be contesting for Iowa between now and then, and will get intensive news coverage there in weeks leading up to the Feb. 12 caucuses, will be a loss for Wilson.
His campaign managers insist that bailing out of Iowa now will enable him to concentrate on New Hampshire and other New England states and on later big-state primaries in New York and Florida. But by that time, the special chemistry of first-in-the-nation Iowa may well have done one of two things: give Sen. Bob Dole, the favorite there, a major boost going into New Hampshire, or surface someone other than Wilson as the emerging challenger.
You don't have to go very far back to find a presidential candidate who finessed the Iowa caucuses and later regretted it. In 1987, a young Democratic senator from Tennessee named Al Gore in effect thumbed his nose at Iowa by proclaiming at a big party dinner that the caucuses were "a nominating process that gives one state the loudest voice and then produces candidates who cannot even carry the state." It was true. Ed Muskie ran ahead in the Iowa caucuses in 1972, Jimmy Carter did likewise in 1976 and 1980 and Walter Mondale in 1984, and the Democrats lost the state each time.
Gore then fell on his sword, saying, "I won't do what the pundits say it takes to win in Iowa -- flatter you with promises, change my tune and back down on my convictions. . . . If that's what it takes to win the Iowa caucuses, I won't do it." When caucus night of 1988 rolled around, Gore got 0.01 percent of the vote.
Gore said after the 1988 campaign that "as an outgrowth of my decision not to contest Iowa I necessarily damaged my prospects in New Hampshire." The reason was that the winner of the Iowa caucuses that year, Rep. Dick Gephardt, consequently came into New Hampshire seen as the principal challenger to Gov. Michael Dukakis, and Gore, seen strictly as a Southern candidate, ran a dismal fifth in that primary, with only 8 percent of the vote.
In advance of last month's Iowa straw poll, Wilson joined Sen. Arlen Specter in denigrating the process -- justifiably -- on grounds that out-of-staters being bused in by some of the other presidential candidates were eligible to vote, and that individual campaigns were buying up large blocks of the $25 tickets and handing them out free.
The California governor's reward was an anemic eighth-place finish in a 10-man field. His support of abortion rights, which he also shares with Specter (who ran last), no doubt was at least as much of a factor in a state in which the religious right is particularly active in such political exercises.
The difference between Wilson and Specter, who is staying in the Iowa competition despite the odds against him, is that Specter seems to be running to ventilate his moderate views in the hope of moving his party toward the center and Wilson is running to win. Unlike Specter, Wilson's cause is his own political ambition, and he obviously feels it won't be served by tilting at windmills in Iowa.
But finessing Iowa and/or New Hampshire guarantees only one thing -- loss of the national spotlight during the very crucial first weeks of the actual presidential campaign year. In 1976, Sen. Scoop Jackson gave Iowa the brush and dodged New Hampshire entirely. He then won the Massachusetts primary, but by that time Jimmy Carter had soared on the political radar screen with victories in both Iowa and New Hampshire and was heading south for more victories. Jackson later won the New York primary, but by that time it was too late for him. The same could happen to Wilson.