DES MOINES, Iowa - In previous presidential election cycles, White House hopefuls at this stage were only warming up for the Iowa precinct caucuses, the first step in the process of selecting delegates for the national nominating conventions that are still nearly a year away.
But because the calendar has been advanced to begin the cycle earlier than ever - in January - the nine declared Democratic candidates for 2004 already are in full pursuit here of the votes that will decide which of them will take on President Bush a year from November.
Most of them will gather in the small town of Indianola tomorrow for an old-fashioned steak fry with Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, himself a one-time (unsuccessful) Democratic presidential aspirant, to hawk their wares and listen to advice from a winner, former President Bill Clinton.
The front-runner going in was considered to be Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of neighboring Missouri, who won the Iowa presidential caucuses in 1988 but then faded. In recent months, however, the phenomenon of former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont as a fund-raiser and recruiter of a sizable grass-roots army, significantly via the Internet, has changed that perception.
A Zogby International poll out yesterday had Mr. Dean ahead with 23 percent of voters surveyed to 17 for Mr. Gephardt, 11 for Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, and the others trailing. So as the field gathers for Mr. Harkin's steak fry, the questions of the day here are whether anyone can slow down the Dean surge and, specifically, whether Mr. Gephardt can survive a defeat in the one state he originally was favored to win.
Of particular note in the poll was a Dean edge over Mr. Gephardt among union voters, the backbone of the Missourian's support in his 1988 victory here and ever since. But the survey's indication that 23 percent of Iowans remain undecided underscored what state party chairman Gordon Fischer says is still "a fluid situation."
Jeanni Murphy, a veteran Democratic Party state official now running the Dean campaign here, diplomatically shies away from any predictions. But she acknowledges that "the caucuses are all about expectations," and her candidate's are so high right now, "it keeps me up at night."
Mr. Gephardt, however, has had more long-standing expectations for victory in Iowa, so the stakes are particularly high for him. A loss in his back yard would send him into less hospitable territory in the New Hampshire primary eight days later, where two New Englanders, Mr. Dean and Mr. Kerry, will be waiting in ambush for him.
As the kickoff state in delegate selection, Iowa does not have a history, however, of deciding nominations as much as it tends to be, as Mr. Kerry's Iowa manager John Norris puts it, "more of an elimination process." That is, it serves to winnow the field, indicating which candidates have sufficient strength and resources to go on.
Mr. Norris, who ran the Rev. Jesse Jackson's campaign here in 1984 and is Gov. Tom Vilsack's former chief of staff, remembers how Sen. Fred R. Harris of Oklahoma finished a distant fourth in the 1976 Iowa caucuses and declared that he had been "winnowed in" - but not for very long.
"If you don't get to the double-digit threshold among the candidates," Mr. Norris notes, "it's awfully hard to ignite your candidacy."
One Democratic candidate who famously exceeded expectations in Iowa was Jimmy Carter, whose emergence from nowhere in 1976 remains the storybook saga of the state as a president-maker. Mr. Dean's rise this year has been compared with Mr. Carter's, but Dean manager Murphy says: "Everyone's seen that movie. You have to make your own movie."
In 1984, an obscure Colorado senator named Gary Hart finished a distant second in the Iowa caucuses to former Vice President Walter F. Mondale. But he parlayed his vote of about 12 percent (to Mr. Mondale's 49) into success by exceeding his meager expectations. He went on to win the New Hampshire primary until also fading.
It is with this history in mind that the nine Democratic hopefuls are already busy beating the Iowa bushes in hopes of avoiding being "winnowed out" here in January. But the greater stakes may face Mr. Gephardt, for whom the bar remains high even in light of the Dean phenomenon.
Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.