Washington — The nation is turning to Iowa today (Jan. 21) for the first important indication of who is likely to occupy the White House in 1981. President Carter seems well ahead of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy among Iowa Democrats.
But the caucusing is a political exercise where only a small segment of the party members participate. Senator Kennedy's strong organization appears to be making the race a close one -- certainly unpredictable.
On the GOP side, former California Gov. Ronald Reagan still seems to be the popular choice of Iowa Republicans, but not by the wide margin he once enjoyed.
A particularly strong organizational effort by former UN ambassador George Bush may take him past Mr. Reagan in the GOP caucusing.
Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. (R) of Tennessee seems to be moving up fast, too.
Another Republican, former Texas gov. John Connally, has been floundering, although his final 40-hour campaign blitz might be helping him stage a comeback.
The negatives seem to dominate both contests:
* The drag on the Kennedy Campaign is the Chappaquiddick issue, revived once more by several recent news stories alleging inconsistencies in the senator's explanations of the incident.
Among members of the United Automobile Workers, whose leaders are committed to the Massachusetts senator, there is evidence of a sizable falloff of support from those who simply think the lesson of Chappaquiddick is that Mr. Kennedy does not deserve the presidency.
This same falloff because of Chappaquiddick is also being seen among Roman Catholics in Iowa, a particularly sizable group among Democratic voters there.
What will these Democrats do? From what they are telling reporters it seems that they either will not participate in the caucus or, if they do,will declare themselves as uncommitted -- with President Carter gaining in either eventuality.
* The drag on the President is his decision to cut off grain to the Soviet Union. Although a poll has shown that the majority of Iowans have expressed support for the move, there still are indications that many farmers are disgruntled.
Senator Kennedy, together with most of the GOP candidates, has fed that disgruntlement by alleging that the embargo hurts Iowa farmers without doing much damage to the Soviets.
Also, the President's failure to debate in Iowa may well have lost him some important support.
* The chief negative in the Republican race belongs to Mr. Reagan because he did not partcipate in the early January debate in Des Moines. The other GOP candidates have underscored his absence.
But the Californian's chief problem appears to be his age. Some of his opponents are indirectly getting the message out that Mr. Reagan does not have the vigor and endurance that a presidential candidate must possess.
Mr. Connally is dogged by a big negative, too: his image of being a "wheeler dealer." This stems in part, it seems, from his shift from the Democratic to the Republican Party a few years ago.
Also, voters -- and certainly the reporters who question Mr. Connally -- have never let him forget that he once was indicted for involvement in the "milk fund scandal," even though he was acquitted.