Des Moines — Gov. Robert Ray says Iowans are showing a lot more interest in the Jan. 21 political caucuses this year. He expects more 15 percent of the registered voters to participate. That compares with some 5 to 7 percent who took part four years ago in this political exercise best known for giving Jimmy Carter a leg up on the way to the presidency.
Governor Ray, in an interview in his limousine as he moved from the Capitol to a downtown television appointment and back, accounted for this increased interest by saying that candidates in both parties were waging particularly hard-fought battles this time around.
This seems to be true.
But the point so vividly illustrated here is how few people are really involved in this important caucusing -- voting which the nation will be watching for the first indication, much as they used to do with the New Hampshire primary , of the shape of the presidential contests.
The lackluster voter participation here will be followed all through the preconvention period in some 35 primaries. These contests also will draw only a tiny minority of registered voters.
But that -- the governor's words remind this reporter -- is the way americans nominate presidents these days. Mr. Ray, himself, is taking a neutral stand on the GOP candidates. But he speaks of his longtime friendship with former Republican national chairman George Bush and of his growing admiration for Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee.
Mr. Ray also expressed something less than enchantment with the airing of TV commercials by supporters of John B. Connally which gave the false impression that Mr. ray was backing the former Texas governor. Mr. Ray said his remarks were taken out of context.
The governor said he felt the Iowa Poll was accurate on how the various candidates stand with Iowa voters today and that he would be surprised if this wasn't reflected in the caucus results: President Carter winning by a good margin on the Democratic side, and Messrs. Bush and Baker fighting it out with Ronald Reagan on the Republican side.
Other aspects of the precaucus scene:
* Mr. Connally is making a 40-hour nonstop "blitz" in Iowa just before the caucusing, apparently to show that he, 53, next month, is much more vigorous than Mr. Reagan, 69 next month. Mr. Reagan comes back to Iowa on Saturday (Jan. 19) for visits to Mason City, Fort Dodge, and Des Moines.
The Connally blitz will be on Friday and Saturday (Jan. 18-19). He will stop at Des Moines, Marshalltown, Waverly, Waterloo, Sioux city, Ames, Cedar Rapids, dubuque, Iowa city, Red Oak, and Centerville.
* United Autoworkers (UAW) union leaders here are actively supporting Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in the Democratic primary. The UAW rank and file is large enough in Iowa to give the Massachusetts senator a real boost, and perhaps a victory, if it were fully behind him and working in his behalf.
But it appears that many UAW members have decided, from watching the senator's performance here in the last few weeks, that he is not the equal of his two brothers.
Furthermore, many UAW members are falling away from the senator because of Chappaquiddick.
One UAW worker, well positioned to know what his fellow workers would do, had this to say: "No, they aren't happy with Carter either. So most of them simply aren't going to show up for the caucuses. Or if they do show up, they will align with the noncommitted group."