Iowa unintentionally sets pace


Politics: Iowa didn't set out to became a beacon of presidential politics. It started with a simple calendar change to obey party rules.

January 19, 2000|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

DES MOINES, Iowa -- It all started sort of by accident.

Looking ahead to the 1972 election campaign, Cliff Larsen, the Democratic state chairman here, realized he had a problem. If the Iowa precinct caucuses were held on their usual date in March, it would be almost impossible to meet some requirements of the new national party rules on delegate selection. So he moved the date up into January.

It made all the difference. When the caucuses were held in March, they were lost in the clamor of big state primaries. In January, they stood out on the election year calendar as the first place where a measure of the candidates could be made.

A handful of reporters noticed. Correspondents for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Gannett Newspapers were the first, showing up here about 10 days before the caucuses. Then a few other political reporters for major newspapers began to drift into town. On the final weekend, one camera crew from CBS also showed up.

Norma Mathews, a liberal activist working for Sen. George S. McGovern, also noticed. And what she saw was a chance for her candidate to ambush the front-running Sen. Edmund S. Muskie.

That, of course, is just what happened. Although the biggest bloc of caucus-goers voted to remain uncommitted, McGovern edged out Muskie. "We got a measure of what the Democratic Party was going to be that year," says James Flansburg, the now retired political editor of the Des Moines Register.

One result was an explosion of press interest in 1976. As Flansburg puts it, "Everybody who wasn't here came out in 1976."

In fact, there were so many reporters that on caucus night the Iowa Democratic Party sold $5 tickets that allowed party activists to patronize a cash bar and walk through the press area to watch the reporters.

And once again the results of the Iowa precinct caucuses pointed toward the ultimate decision on the Democratic nominee. Although "uncommitted" led the balloting again, former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter was the winner.

With this history of identifying an eventual winner, by 1980 the Iowa precinct caucuses had become a prime focus for major news organizations.

CBS News required so many telephones in Des Moines that an additional three-digit prefix had to be created. There were so many people covering the story that it was no surprise for a reporter in search of a pork tenderloin sandwich, the ultimate delicacy here, to run into two competitors at a truck stop 50 miles up I-35 from Des Moines.

Popular interest in the caucuses skyrocketed that year because there were intense contests in both parties. President Carter was being challenged for the Democratic nomination by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who had not yet learned that the history of Chappaquiddick was still too much of a political burden for him to win the White House. Carter won handily as Democratic turnout exceeded 100,000.

On the Republican side the contest involved Ronald Reagan, George Bush, then Senate Minority Leader Howard Baker Jr., former Texas Gov. John B. Connally, Sen. Bob Dole, and Reps. John B. Anderson and Phil Crane of Illinois. Reagan was the heavy favorite, as he had been since his challenge to President Gerald R. Ford fell just short in 1976.

John Sears, the Washington lawyer running the Reagan campaign, was criticized for keeping his candidate above the fray by limiting his personal campaigning in the state.

Sears was confident, however, because his organization had identified 30,000 sure supporters who would show up at the caucuses. Sears figured that even if the turnout reached 50,000 to 60,000, twice what it had been in 1976, Reagan would be home free.

When Sears attended a mass at a Catholic church here the day before the caucuses, he was shocked to hear the priest urging his parishioners to take part in the caucuses. As it turned out, Sears had good reason to be concerned. Reagan got his 30,000 votes, but the total exceeded 100,000 and Bush defeated him.

There has been only one other year in the last 20 in which there were truly contested races in both parties. That was 1988, when Republican Bob Dole and Democrat Richard Gephardt, both from neighboring states with large involvement in agriculture, scored predictable successes.

This year, the parties will hold caucuses at 7 p.m. Monday in schools, fire halls and living rooms. Anyone can vote in either party by registering at the door.

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