A Year from Now in Iowa

February 17, 1991

One year from today, Iowans will vote in caucuses that have been regarded since 1972 as the first important event of the presidential season. In the past, serious candidates have begun campaigning in Iowa more than a year in advance. Not this time. No Democratic presidential prospect of note is working the state.

Some analysts say this is because 1988 proved the irrelevance of Iowa's caucuses. George Bush came in third on the Republican side; Michael Dukakis came in third on the Democratic side. But how to explain New Hampshire? Since 1952, no one has been elected president without first winning the New Hampshire primary. It is scheduled the week after the Iowa caucuses in 1992. Nobody of consequence is working that state, either. "In prior years," says Roy Arsenault, president of the New Hampshire Young Democrats, "we had people begging to come here, even though they denied that they were running. Now they are still denying they are running, and they still don't come."

The war has put a hold on presidential politicking. But there was a decided malaise and reluctance among Democratic hopefuls before Jan. 16, and, for that matter, before Aug. 2. It is almost as if Democrats of national stature have given up on 1992. That would be a mistake even if George Bush is by then unbeatable (as he well may be if the recession and the war don't drag out). If such Democrats as Sens. Lloyd Bentsen, Al Gore, Sam Nunn and Charles Robb, Gov. Mario Cuomo, House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt -- men of responsibility who are already recognized nationally -- don't start campaigning soon, the nomination could go by default to a well-known but fringe figure. Name recognition means a lot in early primaries.

The Democratic Party is already regarded by many voters as barely inside the left edge of the mainstream. What would people think if a George McGovern type became a leading candidate? Don't scoff. The prototype himself, Mr. McGovern, says he is considering running. The Young Democrat's Mr. Arsenault says, "If he ends up with a head start of three or four months, McGovern might be able to pick up a lot of traditional activists."

It was with just such activists that Mr. McGovern won New Hampshire and the nomination in 1972. He subsequently lost 49 states in the general election. The Democrats don't need something like that in 1992 -- especially not with a lot of freshmen Democratic senators running for re-election for the first time. That is their election of maximum vulnerability. A Republican presidential landslide would wreak havoc with the Senate class of 1986.

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