DES MOINES -- In nearly every presidential year since 1972, Iowa's precinct caucuses have held the political spotlight as the kickoff of the presidential delegate-selection process.
That's why this year's apparent usurpation of that first-in-the-nation role by Louisiana Republicans has Iowa politicians -- Democratic as well as Republican -- in a funk.
Iowa's Democrats have no competition against President Clinton their caucuses this year, but they fear that as a result of the Louisiana "steal," they also may be challenged for their leadoff position on their own party's delegate-selection calendar four years from now.
State Democratic Chairman Mike Peterson blames it all on Iowa's Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, who in endorsing Sen. Bob Dole for the GOP nomination broke another Iowa tradition of gubernatorial neutrality until after the caucuses. His endorsement, Mr. Peterson charges, led Republican candidate Sen. Phil Gramm to "go forum-shopping" for an earlier, more friendly first test -- in Louisiana.
Senator Gramm denies he had anything to do with Louisiana switching from a primary to a caucus-convention system and jumping to the head of the pack, but the move is considered a boon to him. Last year Mr. Gramm swept a Louisiana GOP straw poll and he has been the most aggressive grass-roots organizer in the state. The Louisiana party is expected to turn aside shortly some last-gasp Iowa challenges to its switch and change of date to February 6 -- six days before the scheduled February 12 Iowa precinct caucuses.
Iowa has a state law requiring that its caucuses be held eight days before any other state delegate-selection process. The law resulted from a deal negotiated a decade ago between Iowa Democrats, controlling the state legislature, and New Hampshire. It was designed to assure that Iowa would hold the first caucuses and New Hampshire the first primary.
But Iowa Republican Party Chairman Brian Kennedy has reluctantly concluded that complying with the law by leapfrogging the new Louisiana date back to January 29 would be too chaotic. More than 2,100 precinct caucus sites have already been designated for February 12. So he is sticking to that date while hoping by court action to force Louisiana Republicans to scrap their first-in-the-nation delegate-selection plans.
Months ago, Governor Branstad and Mr. Kennedy asked the Justice Department to intervene on grounds that the voting rights of minority Republicans would be undercut by the switch from a primary in which they could vote in their neighborhoods to caucus voting by congressional district that would require many miles of travel. Louisiana still must get pre-clearance from Justice on certain voting changes under the Voting Rights Act, but the Republicans there say it's not necessary and have ignored the Justice position.
As a last hope, a private court action has been filed in Louisiana by Republican presidential candidate Morry Taylor to block the switch and the earlier date. Bob Rafferty, Governor Branstad's chief of staff, says the governor believes this suit "will stop Louisiana in its tracks." If it doesn't, Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, a Democrat, is considering whether the Iowa GOP must comply with the state's first-in-the-nation law and move its precinct caucuses ahead, no matter what the cost and confusion.
The Iowa finesse
Mr. Kennedy suggests the matter can be finessed by asserting that the Louisiana action is illegal and therefore Iowa remains in compliance with its state law by keeping the original date. He says he obtained a pledge from all the presidential candidates except Senator Gramm, Pat Buchanan and Alan Keyes not to participate in Louisiana, and that pledge removes the danger of the Louisiana event really stealing the national political spotlight from Iowa.
Most of Mr. Gramm's rivals jumped on him for "undermining" the Iowa caucuses and he got much negative publicity from the whole business. But Bob Haus, his Iowa campaign manager, says it has not affected his support in the state.
Mr. Peterson says Governor Branstad erred in endorsing Senator Dole and then failing to bring pressure on the national party to get Louisiana Republicans to back off. "The governor is looking for cover," he says of the private court suit to undo the damage.
And while the Democrats revel in Governor Branstad's discomfort, they hope for their own sakes in 2000 that the Louisiana "theft" of Iowa's place at the head of the delegate-selection parade may yet be averted.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun' Washington bureau.