DES MOINES — IOWANS are feeling neglected. Four years ago, 18 candidates for the White House were criss-crossing Iowa, making speeches, visiting cities and hamlets, courting voters. By this time on the election calendar, they had made 376 trips to this state.
Today - silence. No one is here asking for support, opening campaign offices, or plotting strategy. Although Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses are barely 20 months away, the hustings lie fallow. ``That is a a clear indication to me that no one feels they can challenge [President] Bush,'' says Hugh Winebrenner, professor of public administration here at Drake University.
But some Democrats disagree and insist they are pleased with the peace and quiet in Iowa. Ron Brown, the national party chairman, says presidential elections drag on too long anyway.
Al From, executive director of the Democratic Leadership Conference, contends that a lengthy campaign in a small state like Iowa backfires against the party. ``When these guys are out there parading around in Iowa, [they appeal] to narrow-interest politics, and that proves counterproductive in the longer term.''
Unlike previous years, no Democrat has emerged as an obvious front-runner for 1992. But recently the first glimmers of activity could be detected among Democrats who might run.
Last week, Mario Cuomo fueled widespread speculation when he announced his reelection campaign for governor of New York - and then refused to promise that he would serve all four years. To the cognoscenti, that was a tantalizing signal: He may run for the White House.
Other Democrats are also being scrutinized. Rep. Patricia Schroeder of Colorado promises to decide by year-end whether she will try for the nomination. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas is believed to be interested, but he won't test the waters until later this year. Jesse Jackson is widely expected to run. There's speculation about Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, Sen. Charles Robb of Virginia, Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, and several others.
Former Democratic chairman Charles Manatt puts potential Democratic candidates into two categories: the ``Inner 3'' and the ``Outer 4.''
The Inner 3, who must be taken most seriously, are Senator Bentsen, Governor Cuomo, and Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey. The Outer 4, whose candidacies would face greater obstacles, are Senator Kerrey, Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee, the Rev. Mr. Jackson, and Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas.
From any perspective, the Democratic contest is wide open.
Stephen Hess, a political analyst at Brookings Institution, suggests that fear of George Bush isn't the only reason for Democrats' reluctance to crank up their Iowa campaigns. He offers several others:
California. State lawmakers may move up the presidential primary there from June to March, right after New Hampshire. If that happens, Iowa's importance could plummet.
1990 elections. Some potential Democratic candidates, such as Governors Clinton and Cuomo, and Senators Bradley and Gore, have reelection campaigns this year. It's no time to announce a presidential race.
Iowa's record. In 1988, George Bush and Michael Dukakis both finished third in Iowa, yet they won their parties' nominations. After that, Iowa seemed to lose its value as a weathervane.
Youth. Most potential Democratic candidates are in their 40s and 50s. They can easily afford to wait until 1996, so they feel no heavy pressure to enter this race early, if at all.
Hess says the lack of a Democratic front-runner also is a factor in delaying the start of the race. Usually, a strong candidate from a previous election, or a dominant party figure, such as Adlai Stevenson (1954), Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts (1974), or Gary Hart (1986), sets the pace for the next campaign. They force others into the contest early.
The current lack of a dominant leader shows up dramatically in the polls. When Gallup showed a list of 17 potential candidates to 1,064 Democrats, and asked who their favorite was for president in 1992, the front-runners drew only nominal support - Cuomo, 15 percent; Jackson, 14 percent; Dukakis, 13 percent.
When another 1,228 Democrats were asked - without a list - to name their choice for president in 1992, 57 percent said they had no favorite.
But once 1992 gets here, Dr. Winebrenner expects Iowa to again perform a critical role. This state's relatively small population makes it an ideal starting-place for little-known candidates. In 1976, it boosted Jimmy Carter from obscurity to stardom. In 1980, it shocked front-runner Ronald Reagan when he lost here to Mr. Bush, and probably was responsible for making Bush the vice president. In 1984, it made Hart an overnight sensation.
And 1992? Winebrenner expects Iowa to again write its own special chapter in American political history.