Des Moines THE MORNING after Sen. Tom Harkin's one-sided -- and uncontested -- success in the Iowa precinct caucuses, the Des Moines Register bannered the news: "Harkin scores huge victory." Considering that none of the other candidates bothered to campair got 78 percent of the total, with former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts a distant second with 4 percent. Actually, caucus-goers who voted to remain uncommitted ran second, with 12 percent, hardly a ringing endorsement for their fellow Iowan.
Senator Harkin spoke optimistically about how the vote would give him a boost in next week's New Hampshire primary. But Democrats in the Granite State demonstrated in 1988 how little influenced they are by the Iowa caucuses when they looked past the Iowa winner, Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri, and voted for Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts.
The polls indicate that New Hampshireites are moving toward another neighbor, Mr. Tsongas, and away from the early front-runner, the beleaguered Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, while Senator Harkin struggles in single digits.
This trend suggests that just as the Iowa caucuses were reduced to a parochial affair, the New Hampshire primary could turn out to be less than decisive by going to a local, regional candidate as well.
If so, the task for Governor Clinton will be to recover in the Southern states, where he can claim a regional advantage. And Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska will look to the next primary after New Hampshire, in South Dakota, for a regional advantage. There, however, he will be up against another Midwesterner, Tom Harkin, who started organizing in the state last summer. Senator Kerrey has begun running a 60-second biographical TV spot; Senator Harkin will go on the air there soon too.
A recent canvass of 16,000 South Dakota Democrats by the Kerrey campaign, clearly a partisan sponsor, had the Nebraskan ahead, but the interesting figure was 55 percent undecided. In any event, if the winner in South Dakota turns out to be either Senator Kerrey or Senator Harkin, that result too is likely to be dismissed as only a measure of regional appeal.
So the key this year may be not simply primary and caucus victories but which candidate can achieve success outside his own region, and thus demonstrate the sort of broad appeal it will take to beat the Republican candidate in November.
Governor Clinton appeared well on his way to establishing such appeal in New Hampshire until he ran into allegations of character shortcomings that have been central to his slide in the polls. He could still do so by recovering in New Hampshire in the final days.
Mr. Tsongas has pretty much been dismissed as a candidate for the long pull outside New England, but he is going to try to disprove that view in contests in Maryland and Washington state on March 3, while Governor Clinton and others point to Southern primaries then and on March 10, this year's Super Tuesday.
All this could lead to a muddy picture as the Democratic contest moves into the first of the major industrial states on the 1992 campaign calendar -- Illinois and Michigan, both holding primaries on March 17. The Great Plains states candidates, Senators Harkin and Kerrey, are not likely to gain much advantage in these Rust Belt strongholds from the fact that they are Midwesterners, so these contests could be the most critical, assuming regionalism in voting leaves an uncertain outlook in the Democratic race by then.
A pattern of regional voting failing to produce a clear front-runner could also increase pressure on Democrats not in the race to get in. Sponsors of the New Hampshire write-in campaign for Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York are hoping to give the Albany Hamlet a nudge in that direction with their effort.
Inevitably, more talk is being heard of other reluctant dragons -- Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, Representative Gephardt and Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee -- being lured into the competition by the murky outlook in the presidential race right now.
When President Bush looked unbeatable last year, all three declined to run. Jumping in now would cast them as opportunists. But much of politics is, after all, about recognizing opportunity.