DES MOINES — WHAT a difference four years makes.
During the 1988 presidential caucuses:
* NBC came to town and booked 136 rooms at Des Moines's landmark hotel, the Savery.
* Every presidential candidate had a campaign office in Des Moines.
* Four US presidential aspirants and several Cabinet members visited Prasang Nurack's restaurant, A Taste of Thailand, near the state capitol building.
This year Hotel Savery has 11 rooms reserved for NBC, only one candidate, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, has a legitimate campaign office in Des Moines, and Mr. Nurack hasn't served lunch to a single would-be president.
Nurack says he did meet former Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas last year. He has a photo to prove it.
"But I doubt that he will come back again. Nobody wants to fight a losing war," Nurack says.
As Iowans await the results of Monday's first-in-the-nation presidential caucus, the hype and hoopla of past years is not apparent. Four years ago the caucuses attracted an estimated 3,000 national and interna- tional journalists - and a $20 million revenue windfall to the state. This year, no more than a few hundred journalists are expected, and the local Chamber of Commerce declines even to speculate on the potential losses.
Few political observers are interested this year in the outcome of the Iowa caucuses since Mr. Harkin and President Bush are virtually unchallenged and thus expected to take the vast majority of their parties' votes.
The biggest show in town this year has been Harkin's candidacy, but even Iowa's favorite son is getting mixed reviews here. On the one hand, Iowans seem pleased to have a "home-town" boy in the presidential fray in Iowa.
On the other hand, Harkin's candidacy means that Iowans are not getting their quadrennial day in the sun.
According to a Des Moines Register poll published Saturday, Harkin is expected to garner 54 percent or more of the votes in Monday's caucuses.
However, he has slipped steadily in the polls since December, when surveys showed him winning nearly 70 percent of Iowa's Democratic delegates.
Harkin's critics have referred to him as "the pit bull of national politics," a "bully," and a "demagogue." His supporters call him a populist, hard-working, and "his own man."
His presence in this year's caucuses has encouraged other candidates to focus their attention on New Hampshire's Feb. 18 presidential primary. As a result, farm and rural issues, long the stable of discussion in past Iowa caucuses, have seldom been mentioned in the weeks leading up to the caucuses.
Instead, this year's political discourse has been driven by New Hampshire's economic distress.
"It's pretty clear - the candidates see New Hampshire as a more-neutral playing field," says Joe Shannahan, an Iowa Democratic Party spokes-man.
The big question here centers on which of the other four Democrats will finish in second place.
Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton's alleged sexual indiscretions are the major item of discussion at coffee shops and bus stops, but few here are predicting whether these allegations will affect Mr. Clinton when Iowans caucus.
The Register poll predicts he will finish in second place here with 16 percent of the vote.
While Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska is expected to receive only 8 percent of the Democratic vote, he is likely to do well in the western portion of Iowa bordering his own state.
Mr. Tsongas and former California Gov. Jerry Brown are expected to get 5 percent, although both campaigned across the state last year. On the Republican side David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan member from Louisiana, and conservative columnist Patrick Buchanan have all but written off Iowa.
Caucuses take place today in homes or schools across the state. Rather than casting written ballots, head counts of voters are taken for each candidate. Delegates for each candidate winning more than 15 percent of the count are then elected to go to the state and national conventions.
Regardless of this year's final caucus tallies, Iowa remains a diversified state with an unemployment rate of 4.6 percent - increasingly unrepresentative of the rest of the nation.
Thus, few here are overly optimistic that the state's future caucuses will again be the national political drawing cards they once were.