DES MOINES, Iowa -- The Iowa caucuses, the springboard for a generation of presidential candidates ranging from Jimmy Carter to George Bush, may lose much of their significance in 1992 because of the presence of a native son, Sen. Tom Harkin.
Harkin is in a position to sweep the state, party leaders say, raising a question of whether other Democratic presidential candidates will bother to campaign actively here.
"That's a dynamic we just don't know," said John Roehrick, the Iowa Democratic chairman. "Does somebody want to play for second place?"
Roehrick recalled that Gary Hart was able to turn a poor second-place finish here in 1984 into a role as the exciting alternative to Walter F. Mondale. Hart went on to win the New Hampshire primary a week later.
But it seems unlikely that any of the other Democratic challengers is prepared to make a major investment in Iowa this winter, and that is expected to deprive the state of innumerable political and economic benefits and shift the early attention to New Hampshire.
Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, who entered the race Friday, has not been in Iowa since early May and has established no contacts here, party sources say. Former California Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown has made a few telephone calls to Iowa Democrats, but he has announced no plans to come to the state.
Paul E. Tsongas, the former senator from Massachusetts, has campaigned here for months and maintains an Iowa headquarters. It is Tsongas' theory that campaign coverage of debates and joint appearances in Iowa can provide valuable exposure for any candidate competing here when all of the expectations fall on Harkin's shoulders. That may be the only hope to create interest in the contest.
None of the Democrats interested in the presidential nomination has abandoned Iowa altogether, but they are exploring the terrain carefully before making any sort of commitment.
New Hampshire, which competes with Iowa for publicity in the early stages of the presidential campaign, will hold its primary eight days after the Iowa caucuses. The dates for the contests, in February, are expected to be determined this week at a meeting of the Democratic National Committee.
Meanwhile, New Hampshire Democrats struck another blow to Iowa when they moved their state convention from October to Nov. 2, the same day as the biggest Democratic event of the season in Iowa, a Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner.
But the problems for the caucuses began in May, when Harkin revealed that he wanted to run for president. Politicians and business operators, who look forward to the burst of activity generated by the Iowa caucuses, said they were worried, and Harkin was forced to meet with a group of prominent Iowans to try to allay their anxieties.
"I don't think there are any major concerns now," said Arthur Davis, a Des Moines lawyer who is a former party chairman and a staunch Harkin supporter.
The Iowa caucuses began nudging the New Hampshire primary for pre-eminence in 1976, when Carter, who was not well known, led the other Democratic candidates here, though he finished second to an uncommitted slate. In 1980, Bush scored his first great national triumph when he defeated Ronald Reagan in the Republican caucuses here. That victory played a large part in putting Bush on the Republican ticket that year, and he survived an embarrassing beating in Iowa in 1988.
But with no competition among Republicans and a favorite son operating in the Democratic field, the 1992 Iowa caucuses are threatened with a drought that many in the state consider as damaging as the kind that imperils crops.
Not everyone is expected to stay away, however. Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, a popular figure from a neighboring state, has potential power in Iowa. "In this part of the state, definitely," said Tim Bottaro, a Sioux City Democratic leader. In the western counties of Iowa, he said, "we've heard 'Kerrey, Kerrey, Kerrey' for years from the Omaha stations."