Des Moines, Iowa -- ATTENDING THE annual Iowa Jefferson-Jackson dinner here the other night, the same event that put Jimmy Carter on the road to the White House in 1975 and has drawn Democratic presidential candidates ever since, a scene in a great old movie came to mind.
In "Requiem for a Heavyweight," Jackie Gleason as a fight manager has just learned that his punch-drunk meal ticket is washed up. Gleason is drowning his sorrow in a Manhattan bar and says forlornly: "I'm in Pittsburgh, and it's raining."
The line was uttered long before Pittsburgh was voted (surprisingly) America's most livable city, back when it conjured up the image of smoke, soot and depression. Had Gleason been here at the Iowa J-J dinner and a loyal Democrat, he undoubtedly would have revised the line to say: "I'm in Des Moines, and it's snowing."
Indeed, Iowa's capital city was blanketed in nine inches of snow on the night of the dinner, leaving empty nearly half the seats in tables at the Des Moines Convention Center. But that was only part of the reason for depression among the political junkies who have long cherished Iowa's role as a key early player in the presidential selection process.
As those Iowa Democrats who braved the storm listened to six declared candidates for their party's nomination, they understood that they have been reduced to bit players themselves -- for the 1992 election cycle, anyway.
One of the six, Iowa's own Sen. Tom Harkin, has so firmly tied up the state for his own candidacy that most of the other candidates have decided to do little more than pay lip service to the Iowa precinct caucuses on Feb. 10. Former Gov. Jerry Brown California says he will open a campaign office in Iowa, and Gov. Douglas Wilder has appointed a local campaign chairman, each hoping for second place as a way of raising the exceedingly low expectations for his candidacy.
Former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, who invested several weeks in Iowa last summer, has one paid operative here, but she is responsible for everything west of the Mississippi except California and is based here more for the central location than any concentration on Iowa. Sen. Bob Kerry, who is from neighboring Nebraska and is therefore expected by some to run second to Harkin, indicates he won't do anything here that risks fanning that expectation. He has, however, bought the state party's mailing list, which can be used to take soundings on support without making Kerry visible as a vote-seeker. As for Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, when asked afterward if he would be opening an office here, said: "I'm here tonight. I can't say anything else tonight."
From all this, it's obvious that Harkin has done a good job of sewing up most of the Democratic activists who in other presidential election cycles would have been split among a number of candidates. Democratic state chairman John Roehrick, while acknowledging that the Iowa caucuses won't be much of a factor in 1992, holds out hope of a revival in 1996 -- that is, provided Harkin isn't elected or runs again.
Taking the most optimistic tack, Roehrick says that if Harkin becomes president, the Republicans will converge on the kickoff Iowa caucuses in 1996 to get an early jump on their party's nomination. And if Harkin one way or another is out of the 1996 campaign picture, the party chairman says, the Democratic hopefuls will be back here once again, trying to get the edge in the nation's first real test of strength.
At the same time, though, Roehrick says he believes the Jimmy Carter example of starting a year or more before the caucuses in Iowa may have lost its inspirational value. Even before Harkin entered the 1992 race, no Democrat was working the state as Carter did in 1975 and others did in later years. Part of the reason, Roehrick says, was President Bush's enormous popularity at the time, making the Democratic nomination seem not worth seeking.
The Democratic candidates who braved the weather for this year's J-J dinner may be back if the Des Moines Register holds a planned debate in early January, especially if it's picked up nationally by cable television. But Iowa Democrats know that the New Hampshire primary, with no favorite son running, makes a much more attractive and sensible target, and will command center stage in early '92.