GUTHRIE CENTER, Iowa -- In 1984, a local favorite, Walter F. Mondale of neighboring Minnesota, ran away with the Iowa caucuses. But it was a little-known senator named Gary Hart whose presidential hopes got the biggest boost that night, when he finished second.
History may be about to repeat itself. Despite clear signs of weakness in his support, Sen. Bob Dole, who hails from nearby Kansas, remains the heavy favorite to win the 1996 caucuses.
That's why today, four weeks from caucus night, the real contest shaping up is the one for second place.
Whoever comes in second will become Mr. Dole's main competition in the high-stakes New Hampshire primary, eight days later, politicians say. The second-place finisher might even dream of repeating Mr. Hart's '84 feat: riding the wave of media attention to an upset victory over the front-runner in New Hampshire.
Some Republicans, including Mr. Gramm's top campaign aides in the state, think there might be only two tickets out -- first class and coach. The Texan badly needs one of those to keep his nomination hopes alive, especially in light of polls showing him tied for fourth in New Hampshire.
"It's a race to see who is going to be competitive with Bob Dole," says Marlys Popma, a top Gramm organizer in Iowa. "I don't think anybody wants to place third."
With more presidential primaries taking place earlier than ever this year, many Republicans believe the nomination contest will effectively be over by mid-March. As Mr. Alexander likes to say, the '96 campaign "is more like a 40-yard -- than a marathon."
And that makes Iowa particularly important.
"Your vote is worth 1,000 times more than almost everybody else's," Mr. Alexander told a group of potential supporters in Des Moines.
And, at least for now, the man who polls say is in line to get most of those votes after Mr. Dole is Mr. Forbes.
Forbes heats up
Propelled by a self-financed ad drive (estimated cost thus far: $12 million), the first-time candidate has made himself, and his proposal for a flat-rate income tax, the talk of the GOP campaign. Mr. Forbes has sucked up much of the political oxygen Messrs. Gramm, Buchanan and Alexander need to fuel their challenges to Mr. Dole, and he has hurt the front-runner as well.
For weeks, Forbes attack commercials have condemned Mr. Dole as a typical Washington politician and reminded conservatives of his willingness to raise taxes.
On Friday, Mr. Dole struck back. His campaign began airing commercials that question Mr. Forbes' commitment to conservative ideas on welfare, crime and the federal budget, and that describe the millionaire's proposals as "risky" and "untested."
A further sign that Mr. Forbes has arrived as a political force came over the weekend, when the GOP field staged their final joint appearance before the Feb. 12 caucuses.
Throughout the televised debate, the wealthy publisher and his tax proposal were hammered by rival candidates, who pointed out that only wages would be taxed under the Forbes plan, while investment income would be tax-free and deductions for home mortgage interest and charitable giving would be wiped out.
"It was a concession by the other candidates that Steve Forbes is a serious candidate and is in the hunt for second place in the caucuses," Iowa Republican Chairman Brian Kennedy said of the rough treatment Mr. Forbes got.
But political veterans are skeptical of Mr. Forbes' chances, not least because of the importance that grass-roots organizing has traditionally played in this state.
Unlike a primary election, the caucuses are simultaneous gatherings of more than 100,000 Republicans in some 2,000 schools, homes and meeting halls across the state.
"Organize, organize, organize -- and get hot at the end" has been the caucus mantra for years.
Mr. Forbes, with his free-spending television campaign, is trying to reverse the process. His rivals, who have spent the past year building up organizations that can get their supporters to voting sites on caucus night, doubt that will work.
They contend that the Forbes boomlet reflects the impact of his ad blitz, not hard support. And more than two dozen interviews with Republican county chairmen around the state, and with rank-and-file voters attending the $15-a-plate Republican "steak fry" at the fairgrounds in Guthrie Center in west-central Iowa last week, suggest that may be true.
Among those considered most likely to attend a caucus, there appears to be less support for Mr. Forbes than the polls indicate. But there is also considerable softness in Mr. Dole's support -- and plenty of Iowans who have yet to make up their mind.
"It's a little overwhelming at this stage of the game, because of the sheer number of candidates," said Bruce Hoegh, the Republican chairman in rural Audubon County.
Mr. Dole won the caucuses the last time he ran, in 1988, in large part because of his Midwestern roots. His slogan from that campaign, which has been revived this year: "Bob Dole. One of us."
Soft support for Dole
"He's like me. He's tried and he's true. He's from Kansas, the Midwest," says Kenneth McCool, a retired school superintendent Guthrie Center, who admits that his support for Mr. Dole is "not 100 percent."
But some former Dole supporters are looking elsewhere this year, citing everything from his age -- at 73, he would be the oldest man ever to become president -- to the compromises he has made in recent budget negotiations with President Clinton.
"He's been doing business there in Washington a long time. I don't know if that's what we need this time," said Paul Newman, a farmer in Adair County in southwestern Iowa.
Jay Gerlich, a salesman from the small town of Panora, would like to see Mr. Alexander or Mr. Gramm give Mr. Dole a good run.
"It's probably Dole's turn, but it's not his revolution," he says.
Those sorts of comments are a concern to some Dole campaign officials around the state, including Barbara Avery of Spencer, in northwestern Iowa.
"I hate to admit this. I think Bob Dole's support is soft," says the party activist, who chairs the Dole campaign in her county.
"The thing that worries the most is, I'm 77 years old myself and a lot of the people who are for Dole are old. It can be bitterly cold on caucus night. If the wind-chill factor is 60 below zero, we might not be able to get people to come out."