Every four years the country rediscovers Iowa. For one short space of time, the limelight shines on this sparsely settled state, and Iowans become kingmakers. The top contenders for president of the United States crisscross the state, wooing farmers and factory workers one-to-one as if they were running for county board supervisers. Close behind are hundreds of reporters and scores of TV minicameras.
All this attention is lavished on the Iowa caucuses, which will result in naming but 58 delegates of the 3,933 total who will pick a Democratic presidential nominee next summer.
Even some Iowans concede that perhaps their clout is greater than their population of only 3 million warrants. One measure of the intensity: A Des Moines resident, sitting at a downtown lunch counter this month, said he received phone calls from two different campaigns the night before, asking his preference. (He, like many Iowans, is still sitting on the fence.)
So far, Iowa has managed to protect its election-year role by scheduling the caucus meetings as the first state event in the presidential campaign.
But this year there is a creeping feeling that this could be the last big year for the caucuses here. Iowa almost lost its No. 1 spot for 1984 when the Democratic Party revised its nomination procedures, and it is still tangling with the Democratic National Committee over its scheduled Feb. 20 date for the caucuses. National party officials want the caucuses to wait until Feb. 27.
Doubts about the future of the caucuses arrive as regularly as the candidates every four years. But this time some Iowans take the threat more seriously. ''I think holding on to them will be difficult,'' says John C. Law, former chairman of the state's Democratic Party and now Iowa manager of Sen. Alan Cranston's campaign for president.
Caucus supporters have a long list of reasons why Iowa should retain its role. Iowa may take the brunt of jokes about farmers, but its public schools rank among the best in the nation and its residents are among the most literate and best-informed. Better to have such thoughtful folks test the candidates first, goes the reasoning.
Moreover, Iowa's small population allows old-fashioned hand-shaking campaigns where voters can have close look at the candidates.
Iowans are also politically active. They have to be to participate in caucuses, which are meetings in each of the state's 2,945 precincts on what will assuredly be a cold night in February. While citizens of most states have the luxury of merely dropping by the polls and casting a ballot on the day of the primary, caucus attendees can plan to spend two hours debating issues and casting their votes.
Any Iowa resident of voting age is invited, and 100,000 came to the Democratic caucuses four years ago. That kind of grass-roots involvement is good for the political system, say supporters.
''I think caucuses are a lot better processes for the country than large primaries,'' argues Joseph Trippi, spokesman for the Walter Mondale campaign in Iowa. ''People get involved on a much different level than putting a ballot in a box.''
Candidates with big treasuries and lots of TV ads can make headway elsewhere; but in Iowa, the voters like to see a person face-to-face before they'll care enough to attend a long meeting on a winter night.
''It would be terrible to have the big states like California first,'' says Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad in an interview, explaining that such states have so many delegates that the race would end too soon. The Iowa caucuses are ''good for the political system,'' he says.
It doesn't hurt Iowa, either, to have so much attention from would-be presidents and the nation.
''It gives us some exposure and breaks down some of the stereotypes,'' says the Republican governor. ''We're proud of being farmers, but we think sometimes we get unfairly stereotyped.'' When outsiders come to his state, he says, they are ''pleasantly surprised'' with the level of sophistication. The caucus hoopla ''gives us our day in the sun,'' he adds.
Governor Branstad pledges to keep the campaign-year sun shining if he can help it in 1988. ''I hope to be the chairman of the rules committee of the Republican Party,'' he says. Although the GOP caucuses, also on Feb. 20, will scarcely be noticed this year, since the party has an unchallenged incumbent President to nominate, the Republicans will have a nominating race in four years.
So if the Democrats have soured on the idea of one little state having the first big crack at nominating a president, then maybe the GOP will save the tradition. The two parties have in the past agreed to schedule their caucuses on the same night.