Newton, Iowa — WHEN a rival organizer showed up at a Thanksgiving dinner for union retirees here, the Gephardt campaign pulled out its secret weapon: a sheet cake. ``It's amazing what a cake can do for you in Iowa,'' says Glenn Campbell, a field coordinator for the campaign of Rep. Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri. Mr. Campbell's cake, decorated with a Gephardt logo was circulated from table to table and, he hopes, upstaged his rival.
Cakes, dinners, and rallies are not the usual stuff of headlines and evening newscasts. But they are the front line of the campaign.
Although Representative Gephardt has put in an extraordinary personal effort here, traveling to all 99 counties and spending more days here than any other presidential hopeful, the success of his campaign, like all the others, will hinge on the energy and creativity of several dozen paid staff members and hundreds of dedicated volunteers.
Even the best candidates are unlikely to win the state's February caucuses without well-oiled organizations. The Gephardt campaign is no exception.
``Everybody knows the significance of Iowa,'' says Steve Murphy, Gephardt's Iowa campaign director. ``Everybody's going to find their supporters and get them out to vote.''
The strategy is simple: Recruit the best-known, most reliable volunteers to turn out the vote in each of Iowa's 2,487 precincts on the evening of Feb. 8.
Carrying out that strategy is more involved.
On this particular afternoon, Campbell picks up Gephardt's wife, Jane, at the Des Moines airport. Their destination: Local 7102 of the Communications Workers of America. Outside the union hall, he hands her a summary of her husband's family-health-care plan.
``I should bring this up?'' Mrs. Gephardt asks.
``If it's brought up to you, that would be a real good thing to respond with,'' Campbell answers, ``because there are quite a few women that are in this organization.''
Inside the union hall, the event goes fairly well. Paula Campos-Cortez, another Gephardt organizer, has already scouted the meeting and briefs Mrs. Gephardt about whom she'll encounter. The candidate's wife circles the room, shaking hands with each unionist, then gives a small speech. The low-key appearance may not win any converts but it has made important contact with potential supporters. The Gephardt organization rates well in its effort to contact voters.
``It's really a four-person race,'' says Phillip Roeder, an Iowa Democratic Party spokesman. Besides Gephardt, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, Illinois Sen. Paul Simon, and former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt are well organized here. An October New York Times/CBS poll found that 15 percent of Iowa Democrats had been contacted by the Gephardt campaign. Only the Dukakis campaign did better with 16 percent.
After dropping off Mrs. Gephardt, Campbell returns to campaign headquarters in Des Moines, picks up literature, and heads for Newton.
Enrolled until recently at the University of Missouri Journalism School, Campbell works 12-hour days and earns $1,000 a month.
From his campaign office in Ames, Campbell oversees Boone, Jasper, Hamilton, Dallas, and Story Counties in central Iowa. In Story County, the most populous of the five, a key Democrat has sided with Babbitt and made some strong organizational inroads there. So Campbell has had to look elsewhere, getting the support of most of the elected Dallas County officials and, in Jasper, the tacit backing of party activists within a huge union local.
Attracting such volunteers is all-important for a caucus state such as Iowa, because only the activists turn out to vote. In the 1984 caucuses, for example, only 14 percent of the state's registered Democrats attended. In the record turnout of 1980, 19 percent showed up. In Iowa political circles, these activists are well known.
``There's folks in this state that are known not only in Iowa but nationwide,'' says Gephardt's deputy manager for Iowa, Jim Cunningham. ``They have the ability, when they commit to a candidate, to bring folks with them.... When they make a decision and they start calling their constituents and friends and neighbors, then that's how you move a county.''
Political strategists agree that a good organization will not make up for a mediocre candidate. ``The field structure is much more important than in a primary state, but it's not the be-all, end-all that it's cracked up to be,'' says Patrick Mitchell, Iowa coordinator for the Simon campaign.
On the other hand, a good organization can be a mighty boost to the right candidate. In Newton, at the same union hall where Campbell delivered his cake, Gephardt has picked up the support of Lonnie White, president of Local 997 of the United Automobile Workers. Mr. White mentions the possibility of rounding up support in nearby Colfax - an idea Campbell likes.
``We'll get Newton,'' he says confidently. ``If we get Colfax, ... we're in good shape.''