Jimmy Carter kept himself above the Iowa fray and won. Ronald Reagan stayed aloof from the political battle and lost. The simple, and obvious lesson seems to be: only presidents can be presidential. The Republican caucus straw poll showed that the former California governor greatly miscalculated in refusing to join other candidates in the lively give-and-take of public debate and campaigning. His solid political organization and lead in the polls nationwide notwithstanding, Mr. Reagan now has some rethinking to do. He will have to scramble to stop a momentum from building for a rival Republican who has made a spectacular start in the nomination run.
And who ism George Bush? Despite years of public service, that is what many Americans will be asking in an extraordinary echo of the 1976 Iowa caucuses which launched Jimmy Carter on his way. They will know that he has put together a first-rate organization and, like the Democratic politician whose success story he seeks to emulate, poured his all into an effective grassroots campaign. He showed himself vigorous, buoyant, and enthusiastic, and perhaps this, more than his right-to-center views, could have given iowans to think that "Dutch" Reagan is past his political prime.
But Republicans -- and the American people in general -- should not want the GOP nomination to go to someone on grounds of zeal and organization alone. As Mr. Bush digs into his next challenge in New Hampshire, the public will want to begin asking some hard questions about the issues and pinning him down on specifics. They will want to look closely at his record -- at what precisely he did or did not accomplish in the many responsible jobs he has held. However important the Iowa caucuses as an early weathervane of political opinion, it should not be taken for granted that Mr. Bush has a clear coast ahead. The very fact that Mr. Reagan has been defeated in one contest ought in fact to open up the race to a more careful scrutiny and probing of all the candidates. The field is still wide open. It will be up to voters to resist letting massive media coverage and hype convey a momentum that is not fully earned.
It would be premature, too, to assume that President Carter is free and clear of the Kennedy challenge. The Senator, despite a strong organizational effort, was unable to overcome the strong public support the President now commands as a result of his handling of severe international crises and a changed perception of his leadership abilities. Mr. Kennedy's own failure to articulate positions well and fire up audiences as had his late brothers has also played a part in the declining enthusiasm for his candidacy. At the moment mr. Carter's renomination looks secure indeed. But, as anyone following the abrupt gyrations of public opinion polls knows, something could come along -- perhaps increased tensions worldwide or a deep recession -- to bring about another swing.
In any case, the President will have to begin partaking of the political battle in more overt fashion. Not that the public is taken in by his "presidential stance." Mr. Carter may not have been on the scene in iowa but his skillful political hand was everywhere in evidence -- in the decision not to join Mr. Kennedy and Jerry Brown in public debate, in the hundreds of calls made from the White House to Iowa supporters, in the fanning out across the state of Carter family members, in the pre-caucus appearance on "Meet the Press." Even the early release of an outline of the State of the Union message kept the President on television on the brink of the voting.
There is thus no doubt as to the importance attached by the presidential aspirants to the Iowa event, and indeed Iowans themselves seemed sensitive to the role they were playing. More voters turned out for the Democractic and Republican caucuses in Iowa -- over 200,000 -- than for the crucial primary in New Hampshire in 1976. They also approached their task thoughtfully. If this signals a surge of voter interest in the political process, that in itself should be counted significant. But the caucuses ought to be kept in perspective. The Republican straw poll is nonbinding and the Democratic caucus process will eventually send only 2 percent of the delegates to the nominating convention. There is a long, grinding primary road ahead. Iowa was only the first of many critical contests. The public -- and we in the media -- would be wise not to draw any hard-and-fast conclusions.