THE enormous attention given the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primaries can be a source of satisfaction only to the chambers of commerce of those states, and to candidates favored by the ``spin'' put on the results. For the rest of us, though, there is some real consolation in the fact that the actual change in the complexion of the Democratic and Republican presidential races, from what it was before these votes to after, proves to be modest - vastly less than the exaggerated commentary would have led one to expect. Before Iowa and New Hampshire, the Republicans had a two-man race, with George Bush leading, and Robert Dole second. Three other hopefuls - Jack Kemp, Pat Robertson, and Pierre duPont - had real support, but none seemed able to assemble the kind of broad-based coalition needed to compete successfully for a major party's nomination. Now, after the New Hampshire balloting, these basic elements are unchanged.
Vice-President Bush's New Hampshire victory, coming just eight days after his Iowa defeat, hardly assures him the Republican nomination. It does reestablish him, however, as the front-runner heading into the delegate-rich Southern primaries March 8. And it should discourage the perception, so common in political circles, of Mr. Bush as a ``political hemophiliac,'' whose campaign life support would drain away following an initial setback.
The daily tracking polls taken by ABC News and CBS News over the week between the voting in Iowa and New Hampshire provide a fascinating picture of the changes in Bush's base. Both sets of surveys show him losing ground to Senator Dole steadily from Feb. 9, the day after his Iowa victory, through Thursday or Friday. By Saturday, though, both polls found Bush's support steadying and building modestly, a recovery that continued through Monday, when the tracking polls ended. The relative standing of the two candidates changed daily, then, throughout the Iowa-to-New Hampshire interlude, but the movement was not a straight-line progression - with Bush going down steadily and Dole up. Instead, it was a parabolic curve. The ``recovery'' portion of this curve in Bush's support suggests a staying power that many had discounted.
Yet while disappointed that he came up short last Tuesday, Mr. Dole and his handlers have reason to insist that Round 1 - Iowa and New Hampshire taken together - be scored in his favor. Contrary to some speculation, the real question was never whether the vice-president could survive the opening contests, but whether the Senate minority leader would. As it turned out, Dole shook the Bush campaign, shored up his second-place status, and made it likely that the Republican campaign would continue to be hard fought.
On the Democratic side, too, Round 1 served more to confirm a structure that had been evident previously than to transform it. Though their problems are very different, neither Gary Hart nor Bruce Babbitt was a serious presidential contender going into Iowa, and neither won significant support there or in New Hampshire. Still loosely defined, the Democratic race has five actual contestants.
Two of them were, and still are, long shots. To be taken seriously as a contender for the presidency - as opposed simply to being an important figure in Democratic Party politics - Jesse Jackson must show that he can win broad support outside the black community. Whether the failure speaks more to deficiencies in his own qualifications for the presidency, or to an insufficient openness among white voters, the Rev. Mr. Jackson still has not done so.
Albert Gore chose a risky ``Southern strategy'' - risky because he had never developed a strong base in the South. Surveys taken across the region in January by the Roper Organization and by Mason-Dixon Opinion Research showed Senator Gore favored by only 1 Southern Democrat in 7, outside Tennessee.
Before Iowa, Michael Dukakis, Richard Gephardt, and Paul Simon were the leading Democratic contenders. Now, after winning the first three places in both Iowa and New Hampshire, the ``front three'' have retained their positions, though Senator Simon's is very tenuous.
In one other regard the presidential contest is unchanged. The successful entry of yet another candidate, Mario Cuomo of New York, still can't be ruled out. Lacking a front-runner, the Democrats at this time don't even have a front two or three sufficiently strong to foreclose a run by Governor Cuomo to ``save the Democratic Party.''
For all the frustrating froth and exaggeration that adhere to our media-dominated presidential campaigning, the nomination contests themselves still seem to reflect a deeper-rooted structure of public judgment. That, for me, is the most important and comforting story as Campaign '88 heads south.
Everett Carll Ladd is executive director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut.