In Iowa tonight, the 'winnowing-in' process reaches the first checkpoint CAMPAIGN 1996

DES MOINES, IOWA — DES MOINES, Iowa -- Twenty years ago, somebody wrote that Iowa's precinct caucuses would be the first political contest in which some of the losing presidential candidates would be "winnowed out" of the field. Longshot Democratic Sen. Fred Harris of Oklahoma finished fourth but promptly declared himself "winnowed in."

There is likely to be a lot of self-proclaimed "winnowing in" here tonight when Iowa Republicans caucus in more than 21,000 precincts in the first voting involving all nine declared candidates. Only one of them, Sen. Phil Gramm, a surprise loser to news commentator Pat Buchanan in Louisiana last week in what essentially was a two-man race, has indicated he may quit if he fails to finish at least third in Iowa.


The Iowa vote will start highlighting the serious contenders for the GOP nomination. The most important question is whether Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole remains the front-runner or finds his "inevitability" jarred by the money and anti-Washington pitch of magazine publisher Steve Forbes.

The Iowa caucuses have been a vehicle for knocking down Republican front-runners, but not knocking them out. In 1980, heavy favorite Ronald Reagan lost to George Bush but recovered in the New Hampshire primary and was nominated. In 1988, Mr. Bush suffered the same Iowa fate at the hands of Mr. Dole but also came back in New Hampshire and won the nomination.


That 1988 victory for Senator Dole here led him to proclaim himself whimsically thereafter as "the President of Iowa." But he hasn't been saying it since Mr. Forbes came into the state and started smothering and smearing him on radio and television. One late poll shows the two men about level, but the question is what impact the negative tone of the campaign has had. Another poll indicates an unusually high undecided vote as a result of it.

Senator Dole, responding to the Forbes ads, counterattacked over the airwaves on his flat-tax proposal, his murkiness on other issues and his lack of government experience. Other candidates, especially Senator Gramm, seeing Mr. Forbes as a threat to become the prime alternative to Mr. Dole, quickly piled on, focusing on undercutting Mr. Forbes' flat tax, the centerpiece of his candidacy.

Strategists for Mr. Forbes' opponents, perhaps engaging in wishful thinking, suggest now that the counterattacks have led Iowa voters to take a harder look at Mr. Forbes, giving the other candidates an opportunity now to move up and be "winnowed in" on caucus night. Just what that takes, however, is anybody's guess, based largely on that elusive yardstick, "expectations."

The expectations game

Mr. Buchanan was asked the other day what he meant by saying he expected to "do well." He replied: "You decide these things." He meant that doing well depended on how the results were appraised by the news media on caucus night, as measured against the general expectations for each candidate.

Recent history certainly substantiates that view. In 1976, lightly regarded Jimmy Carter was propelled toward the Democratic nomination by finishing first among the contenders in the Democratic caucuses, although he ran behind "uncommitted."

In 1984, Gary Hart finished second to Walter Mondale with only 15 percent of the caucus vote, yet he got more publicity out of the result than Mr. Mondale did because finishing that high was the surprise of the night. Mr. Hart went on to beat the former vice president in New Hampshire.

Four of this year's candidates -- Richard Lugar, Bob Dornan, Alan Keyes and Morry Taylor -- have the lowest expectations, with weak organizations and low poll standings. Most likely to benefit from a strong showing here are three others -- Mr. Buchanan, Lamar Alexander and, after his Louisiana defeat, Senator Gramm -- who are well organized and have been brisk campaigners but remain relatively low in the polls. Hence, they have relatively low expectations to meet.


As for Messrs. Dole and Forbes, failure to finish in the top two would be a major though not fatal blow to each; to Senator Dole because of his political history in Iowa and his party leadership and prominence, to Mr. Forbes because of the ton of money he has spent elevating himself.

Unless Senator Dole wins overwhelmingly and everybody else collapses, there will probably be as much "winnowing in" by the candidates and their political propagandists as "winnowing out" the news media. And so it will be on to the New Hampshire primary next week.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.