The stakes in Iowa

DES MOINES, IOWA — DES MOINES, Iowa - As Iowans flock to their precinct caucuses tonight in the first real test of strength for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, the conventional wisdom has gone out the window.

Until a few days ago, the Iowa caucuses were supposed to settle three main questions: whether Iowa would be the end of the road for Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of neighboring Missouri; whether it would propel former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont on his way to early nomination; and which of the other contenders would be winnowed out.


Those questions have unexpectedly been overtaken by a tightening of the race in which any or all four of the strongest - Dr. Dean, Mr. Gephardt and Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina - might survive the winnowing process.

One astonishing poll at the weekend had Mr. Kerry leading slightly, with Dr. Dean and Mr. Gephardt tied for second and Mr. Edwards close behind. But the caucus outcome is notoriously hard to predict, with uncertain weather and turnout and many voters undecided, so such polls are more tantalizing than clairvoyant.


If the race in Iowa is indeed that tight, the likeliest explanation is that Dr. Dean's conflicting and often contradictory statements, highlighted by media commentary and opponents' critical television ads, have reached a critical mass.

One new Gephardt ad asking "How much do you know about Howard Dean?" questions his support of Medicare and Social Security, two issues of supreme interest to seniors who comprise a healthy bloc of Iowa voters. Other voters at rallies often raise doubts about Dr. Dean's electability, citing his frequently contentious temperament and lack of national security experience.

While Mr. Gephardt has been the spearhead of the anti-Dean rhetoric and ads, the prime beneficiaries may well be decorated Vietnam veteran Kerry and the charismatic, positive-campaigning Edwards. If so, it may be that the Iowa caucuses will not be the decisive event expected after all, with all four leading Democrats claiming "a ticket out of Iowa" to the New Hampshire primary Jan. 27.

Tonight's result, however, still remains most critical to Mr. Gephardt, who won the caucuses here in 1988 but fell short of money and soon dropped out. He has bluntly proclaimed this time around that "we're gonna win," and some of his strategists have said all along that he cannot sustain a defeat in his own backyard. But others insist that he will persevere, at least to the Feb. 10 Michigan primary, where his strong labor union backing could revitalize his campaign.

As the race has tightened, the stakes may be just as high for Dr. Dean. His huge and innovative success in using the Internet as a fund-raising and grass-roots organizing tool across the country sent his expectations sky-high.

It is one thing, however, to raise money and volunteers nationwide via the Internet; it is another to turn out enough bodies in Iowa on caucus night to carry the state. Dr. Dean's campaign manager, Joe Trippi, says his organization has mobilized the volunteers to achieve the task, but whether enough voters, in the wake of the anti-Dean bombardment, have really been sold on the candidate is the critical question. An antidote could be the Dean campaign's success in bringing new, young voters into the process.

The bunching up of several candidates so late in the Iowa campaign is a new phenomenon. In the 1984 Iowa caucuses, Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado was the only challenger to get "a ticket out of Iowa" by finishing a clear if distant second to winner Walter F. Mondale. If there is no decisive outcome tonight, Iowa may turn out to be no more than a way station for the Democratic field on the road to the nomination.

Dr. Dean's massive volunteer army could yet meet its high expectations here and keep him on course to an early coronation. But even if that happens, with retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, a noncombatant in the Iowa caucuses, showing surprising strength in New Hampshire, the possibility looms for a longer contest for the party's 2004 leadership than projected only weeks ago.


Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.