INDIANOLA, IOWA — BILL DAL COL crouches on the edge of a plush seat aboard Steve Forbes's campaign bus, an idle cellular phone in his hand, working the calculations of spin.
For his candidate to win the nomination, the strategist says, Mr. Forbes must place at least fourth in Iowa, third in New Hampshire, second in Delaware, and first in Arizona.
So goes the political arithmetic on every campaign bus as the nation's quadrennial run for the presidency heads into its decisive phase. In politics, expectation can be everything, and candidate staffs are busy trying to shape those perceptions in their favor.
If a candidate does better than their expectations forecast, then the media labels them ''hot,'' and campaign cash and workers flow in.
But woe to the contender who does worse than expected. The cash can suddenly dry up, and the campaign bus winds down a long and lonely road.
Consider how the expectations are shaping up for Forbes, for instance. Given his comet-quick rise in the polls, some analysts argue, he now has to place better than fourth in Iowa and third in New Hampshire or the media will say he stumbled. ''The expectations have changed,'' Mr. Dal Col admits.
''The media make up the rules,'' says Stephen Schmidt, a political scientist at Iowa State University in Ames. ''You declare who wins and loses.''
It's nothing new, of course. Ed Muskie beat George McGovern in the 1972 New Hampshire primary, but McGovern stole the headline. He beat the expectations game. Jimmy Carter, Gary Hart, and Bill Clinton all felt a similar boost.
Sen. Bob Dole could be in the hot seat Monday, when Iowa holds its all-important caucuses. If the front-runner fails to capture the 37 percent he held against George Bush here four years ago, or if one of his rivals finishes a strong second or third, the headlines may contain more of an edge.
The expectations game isn't entirely in the hands of the media, however, as Sen. Phil Gramm discovered this week. For months his strategists promised victory in Alaska and Louisiana. But voters in those states had a different idea. He stumbled in both places, and gave Pat Buchanan - his main rival for the conservative mantle - a boost.
Perhaps if the Gramm team had not raised the bar so high, the candidate might not be in such bad shape now. Neither of those small states would have mattered much. Now Mr. Gramm is setting the bar again. A day after the Louisiana defeat, he said if he didn't finish in the top three in Iowa, he may drop out.
Some argue the process gives the media too much influence. They have the ability to artificially boost the momentum of a candidate on the rise or artificially hasten the decline of a candidate who is fairing poorly.
But Professor Schmidt disagrees. He sees the expectations game more as a consequence of the primary process. It creates the horse race. Prior to 1912, nominees were chosen by party bosses, not the populace.
Primaries are based ''on the assumption that voters are well informed,'' he says. ''The truth is, they may not be. I don't think the media undermine the democratic element of this process.''
This year introduces a new factor, as well, that could lessen the impact of expectations. A shortened primary schedule means that impressions won't have time to linger. Whoever wins in New Hampshire, for example, may stumble in Arizona a week later. And then may rise again, six days later, across New England.