- The Washington Times - Monday, January 24, 2000

The aspiring Democratic and Republican presidential nominees have spent months wooing Iowa voters, and tonight at last those voters will have their say. An estimated 10 percent of Iowa's 1.9 million registered voters will trudge through the snow to one of the state's 2,142 local precincts, where separate Democratic and Republican caucuses are held. There they will cast their support for the candidate of their choice.
According to the latest polls, Vice President Al Gore has opened a commanding lead over former Sen. Bill Bradley, who has slipped in recent weeks. The final pre-caucus poll of the Des Moines Register, which has endorsed Mr. Bradley, shows Mr. Gore leading 56 percent to 28 percent. In the Republican race, the Register's poll shows Texas Gov. George W. Bush leading publisher Steve Forbes 43 percent to 20 percent. Each of the other four candidates Alan Keyes, Gary Bauer, Orrin Hatch and John McCain, who has barely competed in Iowa captured the support of less than 10 percent of those polled.
Since the first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses were introduced in Iowa in 1972, they have played a vital role in the selection of the parties' nominees. Indeed, the political graveyard is littered with the remains of once-promising candidates who failed to meet expectations in Iowa. In 1996, Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, who raised more than $20 million, withdrew from the Republican race two days after a dismal showing in Iowa. The 1984 caucuses doomed the candidacy of Sen. John Glenn, who garnered a puny 3.5 percent of Iowa's vote. Former Texas Gov. John Connally's 1980 campaign, which raised so much money that he rejected matching funds, collapsed after he received less than 10 percent of the vote in Iowa. That same year President Jimmy Carter crushed his once-formidable opponent, Sen. Edward Kennedy, by a two-to-one margin.
On the other hand, Iowa's caucuses have propelled the candidacies of those who have exceeded expectations. In 1976, Mr. Carter was an unknown Georgia governor who had canvassed Iowa for more than a year before the caucuses. Coming from nowhere, Mr. Carter more than doubled the caucus vote of his nearest opponent, setting the stage for victory in New Hampshire and in nine of the next 10 primaries, leading to his nomination. Despite Sen. Gary Hart's distant second-place finish (16.5 percent) to Democratic front-runner Walter Mondale (49 percent) in 1984, Mr. Hart had sufficiently exceeded expectations that he managed to defeat Mr. Mondale in the New Hampshire primary and very nearly seized the nomination from him despite the prohibitive odds Mr. Hart faced before the Iowa caucuses. In 1972, Sen. George McGovern's unexpectedly strong showing (22.6 percent) represented the beginning of the end for Democratic front-runner Edmund Muskie (35.5 percent) in a race for the nomination that Mr. McGovern eventually won.
While performing below expectations can be a recipe for political disaster, winning Iowa's caucuses has hardly been a ticket to the presidency. In fact, Mr. Carter's 1976 caucus "triumph" technically, he came in second to "uncommitted" was the last time a candidate who prevailed in a contested Iowa caucus vote went on to win the presidency. The "Big Mo" that George Bush thought accompanied his 1980 Iowa victory was not enough to withstand the real momentum of Ronald Reagan's message. Robert Dole won Iowa in 1988 and 1996. Iowa victories by Mr. Muskie in 1972 and Dick Gephardt in 1988 and favorite-son Tom Harkin in 1992 proved to be essentially worthless as each saw his candidacy collapse shortly thereafter.
Thus, the lesson today's candidates from both parties should draw from the results of the past 20 years of Iowa's contested caucuses is this: Failure to meet expectations can doom a promising candidacy, but meeting or exceeding expectations in no way means victory in November.

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