Iowa '88 caucus surprise could be Babbitt

Will a victorious dark horse gallop across Iowa in 1988? Every four years, a political unknown has surprised campaign experts by running much stronger than expected in Iowa's first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses.

In 1972, it was George McGovern, an obscure senator from South Dakota who eventually won the Democratic nomination. In '76, it was Jimmy Carter. In '80, George Bush. In '84, Gary Hart.

The dark horse doesn't always win the nomination. But he always turns the political race topsy-turvy for months.

This year, Republicans say they don't expect a dark horse to emerge here in Iowa. But on the Democratic side, many county chairmen, surveyed by the Monitor, say one candidate could shock the field. He's former Gov. Bruce Babbitt of Arizona.

Governor Babbitt has all the right specifications for a dark horse. Expectations about his campaign are very low. He's not very good on TV. He's from a less populous state. He doesn't have much money. His ideas, such as raising taxes, are controversial.

If Babbitt suddenly ran strongly in the Feb. 8 caucuses - presto - Iowa would have produced another February surprise.

Clarence B. Meldrum Jr., Democratic chairman of Pottawattamie County, Iowa, says it could happen.

``Babbitt is too strong on the issues and has too good an organization to finish as low as the polls are showing,'' Mr. Meldrum says.

That sentiment is echoed by more than 20 other county chairmen here. Harold R. Swann of Mills County says: ``Babbitt is telling it like it is on taxation.''

In Winneshiek County, Lyle Otte gives Babbitt credit for ``strong platform positions,'' and Roger Johnson, chairman in Wright County, says Babbitt is ``stronger among Democratic activists'' than among other Democrats who might not bother to vote Feb. 8.

Victory by a dark horse is more than just votes, however. It involves perceptions. Thus, in 1984, Senator Hart did far better than expected, so he was declared a big winner here, even though Walter Mondale got three times as many votes. Only days later, because of his Iowa ``victory,'' Mr. Hart swept past Mr. Mondale in the New Hampshire primary.

Babbitt has spent more days in Iowa (112) than anyone except Rep. Richard Gephardt from next-door Missouri. He's very well organized, with more than 14,000 Iowans pledged to support him at the caucuses, according to campaign sources. (About 100,000 people take part in the Iowa Democratic caucuses.)

Despite that effort and support, 58 percent of the Democrats here still say they don't know enough about Babbitt to form a judgment, a New York Times poll says. Lack of recognition remains one of his greatest hurdles.

A strong showing by Babbitt - even a third-place finish - could shake up the Democratic field.

Recent polls indicate Mr. Gephardt may have moved into first place here. Also battling for No. 1 are Sen. Paul Simon and Gov. Michael Dukakis.

But after lingering at the bottom of the polls, Babbitt has moved up smartly into fourth place. That puts him within striking distance of the front-runners.

This presents certain dangers to someone like Governor Dukakis, who leads in New Hampshire. If he lost here to Babbitt, a candidate many experts had all but written off, it would be an embarrassment. That would set the stage for another candidate, perhaps Mr. Simon, Mr. Gephardt, or Babbitt, to become the logical alternative to Dukakis in the New Hampshire primary Feb. 16.

If Babbitt suddenly emerges as a serious contender, it could force Democrats to take a harder look at some of his iconoclastic positions. Some of the most controversial involve taxes. He would stiffen taxes on social security benefits that go to the wealthy. And he would do away with mortgage interest deductions for second homes.

Babbitt insists that the nation must tighten up such programs at a time when the nation is being forced to compete for jobs with other industrialized countries, like West Germany, South Korea, and Japan.

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