DES MOINES, Iowa -- Iowa Democrats kicked off their party's 1992 delegate-selection process last night by giving their native son, Sen. Tom Harkin, a lopsided victory in essentially uncontested precinct caucuses across the state.
The results gave Mr. Harkin, the only one of five prominent presidential candidates to campaign in Iowa, a strong send-off from his neighbors at a time he badly needs a boost in the New Hampshire primary a week from today. He has been running fourth in a five-man field there in most polls.
With 46 percent of all precincts reporting, Mr. Harkin had 76.8 percent; former Sen. Paul E. Tsongas of Massachusetts, 4.2 percent; Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, 2.9 percent, Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, 2.2 percent; and former Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. of California, 1.3 percent. Another 12.4 percent voted to be counted as uncommitted.
Mr. Harkin told a cheering crowd of supporters here that "this campaign is on track. The train is on track and the engine has a full head of steam. Tonight, we here in Iowa showed how to do it up right. We turn it up and now we take it to the rest of the country."
The Harkin total easily surpassed his campaign's stated goal of winning the largest share of precinct caucus delegates ever achieved in Iowa. The previous high was the 59 percent won by then President Jimmy Carter over Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts in 1980.
There was not much doubt that Mr. Harkin would achieve his goal, considering the manner in which delegates were elected in Iowa's 2,189 caucuses.
Unless supporters of a candidate constituted 15 percent of the total attendees in any caucus, they got no delegates. And with the Harkin campaign the only one attempting to get supporters to the caucuses -- and with state pride working in his favor -- the Iowa voting was like shooting fish in a barrel for him.
Last night's caucuses were a far cry from those of recent presidential election years when the political spotlight shone intently on this event marking the actual start of the battle for delegates who eventually would choose the party nominee.
Mr. Harkin campaigned up to the start of last night's voting, continuing a fly-around of the state in the hopes of generating a large turnout. The expectation, however, was that it would drop off sharply from the 120,000 Democrats who participated four years ago, when Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of neighboring Missouri was the winner. State party chairman John Roehrick estimated last night it might be as low as 25,000 to 30,000.
In a sense, the Iowa caucuses shaped up as a possible no-win situation for Iowa's junior senator. His victory by a wide margin was a foregone conclusion, and the risk was that Iowans might show indifference to his national campaign by staying home from the uncontested balloting last night.
Mr. Harkin already was struggling in New Hampshire, where most polls had him running fourth in the five-man race -- ahead of only Mr.Brown, but challenging Mr. Kerrey for third place. Harkin aides already have said that their candidate will press on no matter where he finishes in New Hampshire.
The next contest after New Hampshire will be Feb. 23 in caucuses in Maine, which in recent presidential years have followed the results in the New Hampshire primary. Mr. Harkin's first real opportunity to make a dent in national recognition will come two days later in the Midwest's first primary in South Dakota.
Mr. Harkin made an early start in organizing that state last summer, signing on nearly half the Democratic members of the state Legislature. But Mr. Kerrey has appeared to be making headway in South Dakota since then. A canvass of 16,000 voters by his campaign recently reported 19.8 percent of voters supporting Mr. Kerrey, 13.7 percent for Mr. Clinton, 6.3 percent for Mr. Harkin and 55.5 percent undecided. No independent surveys have been made public.
Mr. Kerrey's showing might result from the fact that he has been the first Democrat to run television ads in South Dakota. Precinct delegates elected last night will go on to congressional district and then state conventions, where Iowa's 56 Democratic delegates will be named.
Although the Iowa caucuses kicked off the 1992 delegate-selection process nationally, they did not pick the first actual delegates to the Democratic convention in New York in July. They will be determined by the vote in New Hampshire next week.
Iowa Republicans also held caucuses around the state last night, but no balloting was conducted for president. The state is expected to take a unified delegation behind President Bush to the GOP convention in Houston in August.