Now, it's official: The season of presidential politics is under way. The straw polls of autumn? The weeks of handicapping? they were only a warmup, some predawn exercises to loosen up the pundits. The true beginnings are in Iowa, where Republicans hold caucuses tomorrow, and in New Hampshire, where the presidential primary is Feb. 20. They are the contests that make and break candidates. Some already are casualties, or decided early on not to be part of the race. Remember Colin Powell? Arlen Spector? After Iowa and New Hampshire, the next red letter date is March 5, when primaries take place in Maryland and seven other states. By the next morning, the number of candidates will probably be further reduced. The survivors will still have Super Tuesday -- the nine contests scheduled March 12. That's to say nothing of California, on March 26. Or the Republican National Convention, opening Aug. 10 in San Diego, followed by Election Day, on Nov. 5.
First among equals:
Where Steve Forbes spent some of his millions and front-runner Bob Dole spent his time. Phil Gramm says if he doesn't finish at least third, his race will be over. Historically, the winner in Iowa has often turned up the loser elsewhere. Bitter cold has not kept the candidates away from farm breakfasts, Rotary clubs or the air waves.
For reasons of timing and history, usually the most impor-tant early test. Do well in New Hampshire, you have an excellent chance of remaining a credible contender for at least another two weeks. Patrick J. Buchanan did well here in 1992. Senator Dole has the endorsement of the popular Republican governor and is hoping that counts.
Texas RTC One of the Super Tuesday states, on March 12. Senator Gramm was counting on success here, his adopted home state, but his candidacy may not survive into March. If one or another Republican has already emerged as a clear front-runner, this king-size state will have pint-size influence. But its importance will return by November.
In terms of delegate numbers, the largest state of all. But all the caveats about Texas apply here, too. By the March 26 primary, the Republican contest may already be over except for the roll call at the national party convention. In the distant past - that is, about six months ago - all the talk was about Gov. Pete Wilson's chance of winning his home state.
March 12 is the date. This used to be The Big One, the only date on which a large number of states went to the polls. But this time, 17 other states already will have finished with their caucuses and primaries. Super Tuesday remains the most important voting day in the South until the November election.
Other contests :If the past is a reliable guide, Republicans should know the identity of their presidential nominee well before the last primary - Utah has the honor, on June 25. It is separated from the national convention by six weeks - plenty of time for another TV blitz.
Primaries and caucuses
Feb. 12: Iowa
Feb. 20: New Hampshire
Feb. 24: Delaware
Feb. 27: Arizona, South Dakota
March 2: South Carolina
March 5: Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont
March 7: New York
March 9: Nevada (caucus)
March 12: "Super Tuesday" Florida, Hawaii (caucus), Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Washington
March 16: Puerto Rico
March 19: Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin
March 26: California
April 2: Kansas and Minnesota
April 9: Virginia
May 4: Wyoming
May 7: District of Columbia, Indiana and North Carolina
May 14: Nevada and West Virginia
May 21: Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky and Oregon
June 4: Alabama, Montana, New Jersey and New Mexico
June 11: North Dakota
June 25: Utah First among equals: