DES MOINES, Iowa - After more than a year of candidates jockeying for position, the contest for the next Democratic presidential nomination is finally approaching decision time where it always does, in snowy and frigid Iowa.
In less than two weeks, the night of Jan. 19, Iowans will gather in private homes, church and school basements and sundry other locations in 1,994 precincts across the state to debate and then vote for their Democratic presidential favorites.
These precinct caucuses are a much purer exercise in grass-roots democracy than the state primaries by which most national convention delegates are chosen, wherein voters simply go to a polling place, pull down a lever and head home.
In Iowa, all of the most serious candidates have been organizing across the state for more than a year, often precinct by precinct, in the hope that on caucus night their supporters, despite below-zero temperatures, will show up and stand up - literally - for the candidate of their choice.
Under the time-honored caucus procedure, precinct voters, after some preliminary group discussion, decide what share of that precinct's delegates will be pledged to each candidate. To qualify for one or more delegates, or be "viable," in the caucus parlance, a candidate must have 15 percent of the total attendees in any precinct. As of today, two of the candidates - former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of neighboring Missouri - by dint of diligent organizing, are considered the best bets to achieve this cutoff in the most precincts.
If a candidate falls short in any precinct, his or her supporters then have the option in a second round of voting to join another candidate group that does have 15 percent, or to remain uncommitted. For instance, if the supporters of former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois fail to reach the 15 percent, they may realign themselves with one of the groups backing a "viable" candidate.
The wrinkle could be especially significant this year with the early emergence of some sentiment to stop the front-running Dr. Dean from nailing down the nomination when the process has barely begun. Supporters of a nonviable candidate, for example, could switch to Mr. Gephardt in an effort to slow Dr. Dean. Or it could work the other way - a rush by supporters of a non-viable candidate to jump aboard the Dean train before it leaves the station.
Still other supporters may realign themselves in ways intended to undercut an opponent in the fight for a second-, third- or fourth-place finish statewide in the winnowing-out process that is the usual product of the earliest caucuses and primaries. Percentages of delegates captured statewide will be the measure of which candidate won Iowa and which others did well enough to beat expectations.
Whatever the candidate strategy in the caucuses, the procedure requires a lot more engagement by the voters and more effort from the candidates and their grass-roots staffs to educate their supporters on how to vote and to cajole them into going out on caucus night. This may be part of the reason that two of the nine Democratic candidates - Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut and retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark - pulled up stakes in Iowa months ago and are focusing on the New Hampshire primary eight days after Iowa votes.
Mr. Clark was a late starter. In Mr. Lieberman's case, there was also the indication that he was running like a dry creek in Iowa when he bailed out. That did not stop him, however, from flying in for Sunday's candidate debate to get optimum publicity for his self-chosen role as leader of the "Stop Dean" effort.
In any event, the guessing game on who's up and who's down will soon end as real Iowa voters finally replace the polls and the prognostications in beginning to determine which Democrat will take on President Bush in November.
Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.