DES MOINES -- After the most intense runup to Iowa's kickoff precinct caucuses in political history -- nearly 700 days spent in the state by presidential candidates since 1997 -- the six surviving Republicans and two Democrats are in another battle of expectations as they head toward the first real voting of the 2000 election here on Jan. 24.
Having raised record amounts of money and endorsements from most of the state's Republican establishment, the expectations for Gov. George W. Bush of Texas here are so high that anything short of a landslide victory is likely to be meaningless for him.
By the same token, the huge amounts of personal funds that magazine publisher Steve Forbes has pumped into his Iowa campaign, and the time he has spent here -- 69 days to only 19 by Mr. Bush up to this week, according to Hugh Winebrenner, a Drake University professor -- makes Iowa an acid test for Mr. Forbes.
Despite his ambitious efforts here, Mr. Forbes has failed to move in the polls and may already be looking past Iowa. While Mr. Bush was scheduling a two-day swing in the state this week, Mr. Forbes was elsewhere, focusing on approaching debates.
Although Mr. Forbes since his disastrous 1996 presidential bid has altered his position on abortion from fuzzy opposition to categorical rejection, he has been fighting an uphill battle here to gain support of the strong religious right constituency. He is being aggressively challenged for that support by Christian political activist Gary Bauer, Alan Keyes and Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch. Finishing behind any of these on caucus night would be near-fatal to Mr. Forbes' chances.
Days campaigning in the state, and money spent, could prove to be a poor yardstick of success, however, if the wild card in the Iowa caucuses -- Arizona Sen. John McCain, who has basically boycotted the Iowa campaign except for one nationally televised debate last month -- draws enough support anyway to finish in the first three.
It has been a political axiom in Iowa that presidential candidates must show themselves to the voters repeatedly in their home towns to get them to turn out on a January night to vote in the more than 2,000 precinct caucuses around the state. Mr. McCain is craftily saying he's not competing while showing himself just enough, and banking on the national publicity from his surge ahead of Mr. Bush in New Hampshire polls, to put himself in a no-lose situation in Iowa.
On the Democratic side, Vice President Al Gore was here Monday and former Sen. Bill Bradley is due tomorrow in advance of a debate Saturday. Mr. Gore's early high expectations have slipped as a result of a campaign in disarray coupled with surprising fund-raising strength by Mr. Bradley and his declared intent not to engage in negative campaigning.
In Davenport Monday, Mr. Gore observed that Mr. Bradley "seems to believe America can address only one thing at a time, that health care is the only challenge we can handle." It was a reference to Mr. Bradley's approach of focusing on "a few big ideas."
Mr. Bradley, after first turning the other cheek, has begun to hit back at Mr. Gore for "distortions" of his positions and is questioning the costs of Mr. Gore's own proposals. Mr. Bradley's hope of riding low expectations here is slipping; he still trails Mr. Gore in polls.
If past Iowa caucuses are a guide, observers will be considering these pre-vote expectations as well as actual results in assessing winners and losers on caucus night less than three weeks from now.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.