When it's caucus time in Iowa

LIKE most Iowans, I grew up thinking that every Lions Club chili supper in America was visited by two or three members of Congress. It was a natural enough assumption, for in Iowa you can hardly step outside your door during election years without bumping into a senator or governor with presidential aspirations. Politicians who have spent their days debating arms control and the budget come to Iowa and find themselves arguing over who gets the most prominent spot on the podium at Solon Beef Days.

The system is indeed a strange one, but I for one wouldn't have it any other way, and not just because I'd miss shaking hands with a good percentage of the US Senate every four years. In Iowa, the election process works as it should, with national leaders meeting ordinary people on a one-to-one basis. No matter how fat a candidate's campaign chest may be, if he doesn't get out and talk to the people in Grundy Center he's in trouble. That human contact is a better test of a candidate than how presidential he looks on a television commercial.

To the rest of the country, Iowa's caucus system must seem like an odd kind of beast, much different from primaries. Iowa caucuses are sociable, noisy affairs, held in community centers, schools, and homes. People spend the evening discussing issues and politicking for their favorite candidate, trying to change the minds of their neighbors before the final vote.

I remember the first time I attended an Iowa caucus, freshly 18, and primed with the responsibility of electing the next president of the United States. In the crowded gymnasium of our local high school, people milled and talked, and the air was full of ``We need to get this on the platform'' and ``You're not considering this seriously enough.'' It gave me an abiding sense that my vote could make a difference in the future of our country.

And I was entirely correct - the outcome of the Iowa caucuses can have a profound effect on the campaign, as many politicians have learned to their sorrow. There's good reason why the national news media descend on the state like flies on honey every four years.

The amazing thing about the Iowa caucuses is that they work as they should. Iowans are generally honest, independent people, not easily swayed by influence-peddlers or high-pressure salesmen.

We make the most of our privileged status, of course. Iowa politicians know the value of their endorsements and extract from candidates a heavy price in photo opportunities and mutual compliments; woe be unto a candidate who neglects to shake the hand of an important supporter in Storm Lake or Oelwein.

Iowa journalists who normally cover school board elections and department store openings also revel in the sudden excitement, and for months the headlines trumpet the daily comings and goings of all the candidates.

Cartoonists, naturally, have the best time of anyone at caucus time. Last June, a Des Moines Register cartoon, for example, showed a grinning, portly hog next to a bale of hay. The sign read:

Have Your Picture Taken With A Genuine Iowa Pig

15% Discount For Presidential Candidates!

But by and large we take our responsibilities seriously. In Iowa, it is possible for every resident to meet, with a minimum of effort, every single presidential candidate.

There are those who argue that the system is unfair, that Iowa is unrepresentative of the nation as a whole. It would be better, they say, to have the candidates first test their mettle in a more populous state.

It seems to me that such a change is exactly what we don't want. In Iowa, candidates with comparatively meager campaign funds but big ideas can be heard and make themselves known - a feat impossible in larger states like California or New York.

By the time the candidates leave Iowa, their campaigns have become large, well-oiled machines, with most of the bugs worked out and speeches polished. Press conferences at airports will largely take the place of country fairs and pig roasts.

Back in Iowa, the media hype will suddenly be over, and local politicians and reporters can go back to whatever they were doing before the whole brouhaha began. The word ``Iowa'' won't be heard again on the nightly national news until the next round of caucuses.

But on the eve of Feb. 8, I have a message for the rest of the country: Ignore the overinflated media coverage of candidates posing in barnyards and trust our good judgment. We'll try to use our power wisely. We'll weed out some candidates, encourage others, and bend the ears of all of them with our concerns and questions. Though the system may have its flaws, it's as good an example of representative government as we've got, and we're grateful to have the opportunity to participate.

Lori Erickson lives in Iowa City, Iowa, and plans to attend the caucuses on Feb. 8.

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