Des Moines — Frozen and snowy Iowa, site of the first event in the presidential race, has often been the place where front-runners stumble. And as the campaigns gear up for the last month of campaigning before the Iowa caucuses, a long-shot candidate is again trying to make his break.
A year ago few Iowans knew anything about the senior senator from California. Even now Alan Cranston is far behind in national polls as he campaigns for the Democratic nomination for president.
But when four of the Democratic hopefuls came to a forum last week in Des Moines, the crowd saved its cheers and standing ovations for Senator Cranston. The other candidates, Sen. Gary Hart, former Sen. George McGovern, and even Sen. John Glenn, had to settle for polite applause.
The event, sponsored by a coalition of minorities in the heart of the black community in Des Moines, sparked kind words about the only black candidate, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson. But the night clearly belonged to Cranston.
No one was surprised. For more than a year Cranston has been working hard in Iowa among minorities and antinuclear-weapons groups, who have warmed to his message of ''peace and jobs.'' His Iowa organization, which includes two former executive directors of the Democratic Party in Iowa, is generously praised by rival groups.
There is even some talk, laid down by his campaign staff, about Cranston beating out Senator Glenn for second place behind former Vice-President Walter Mondale during the Iowa caucuses next month.
Cranston will have a difficult time defeating Glenn because the Cranston appeal is mainly to a narrow group of Iowa Democrats. As one Mondale worker put it, Cranston has ''plotted out'' a small territory of the electorate as if it were his garden and ''put a hothouse over it and cultivated it.''
However, the Iowa caucuses are so quirky that major candidates have good reason to be leery. George Bush upset candidate Ronald Reagan in the 1980 Iowa caucuses and set off a major revamping of the Reagan campaign. Candidate Jimmy Carter launched his first campaign largely by figuring out how to win in Iowa.
Money and a famous name will not carry a presidential hopeful far in Iowa. Television spots will help little because a favorable image is not enough. A candidate in Iowa needs committed Iowans. Supporters must be willing to leave their homes on a frigid, possibly snowy night of Feb. 20 and attend a caucus meeting that will probably take two hours.
Moreover, because there will be 2,495 individual caucuses, a candidate who expects to do well must identify at least one organizer for each. That takes a gigantic grass-roots effort.
Cranston, like Jimmy Carter before him, brought his organization early to Iowa and began wooing supporters. He made contact with the strong nuclear freeze movement in Iowa. Unlike rival staffs, the Cranston workers included minorities from the start and that fact plus his voting record won Cranston such supporters as Larry Carter, head of the Des Moines chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The NAACP director welcomes Jesse Jackson into the race, but he says that for Iowa, the black candidate came too late. ''I am supporting Cranston,'' says Mr. Carter. ''I was committed to him early on.''
Such commitments around the edges of the Iowa eleatorate have not dissuaded any of the political participants that Walter Mondale will be No. 1 when the caucus votes are counted. The former vice-president has not neglected the state. As far back as 1982 he has been visiting the state, flying in to campaign for party candidates even on the county supervisor level.
The biggest foe of Mondale and all the candidates in Iowa now is expectation, since failure means doing worse than expected. As the campaign heats up, all sides are trying to temper hopes and forecasts.
''Win, we will do,'' says Joseph Trippi, press secretary for Mondale's Iowa effort. But Mondale will not ''blow them out of the water,'' he says. ''You've got six different candidates spending $700,000.''
Workers in other campaigns point to the labor unions and teachers who are multiplying the Mondala organizational work, and who are not subject to the approximately $670,000 federal spending limit for candidates.
Mr. Trippi minimizes the advantage. ''Teachers and unions are very, very helpful,'' he says. But he hastens to point out that the state has only 90,000 labor households and 10,000 Democratic teachers, compared with 570,000 Iowa Democrats.
Senator Glenn probably has the most to lose in Iowa, since the expectation is that he is Mondale's only serious challenger. He would need a strong second place in the caucuses to prove that claim. But Glenn's Iowa campaign has had serious organizational problems that led to a total replacement of the top leadership just weeks before the caucuses.
Since organization is the key to a caucus state, Iowa could become a major embarrassment to Glenn.
Newly installed press secretary Larry Rasky gives a sober appraisal of Glenn's success in Iowa and a generous description of Mondale's effort. ''It seems they have twice as much'' of everything, he says, pointing the expected arrival of hundreds of Minnesota volunteers each weekend until the caucuses.
''If Mondale doesn't win by a large margin, they've got a lot to explain,'' says the Glenn spokesman.
Meanwhile, the Gary Hart campaign is already explaining its lowly position in Iowa, despite a major effort there. ''We're going to be drastically outspent,'' says spokesman Kevin J. Sweeney, who adds that unlike Cranston, Hart is running hard in both Iowa and New Hampshire.
However, even dark-horse Hart has come up with an Iowa strategy that could reap some votes. He has driven into the distant villages and hinterlands of Iowa in a van caravan, picking up local leaders and newspaper editors along the way and winning their support. That closeup campaigning style is what Iowa requires and why caucus night has so often delivered surprises.