THIS week's Iowa Democratic precinct caucuses clearly underscore the formidable grip that former Vice-President Walter Mondale has on the allegiance of party loyalists. By winning 3 to 1 over his closest rival - Sen. Gary Hart - Mondale has shown that the Democratic presidential nomination is his to win or lose. If the Mondale juggernaut also rolls handily in next week's New Hampshire primary, it would seem difficult indeed - though, of course, not totally impossible - for another candidate to emerge as the Democratic front-runner by the end of the primary period.
Iowa has to be kept in careful perspective. The delegate test was a caucus, not a primary. Most of those persons voting were party activists committed to specific political issues, candidates, or ideological orientations. Many consider themselves to be liberals rather than moderates or conservatives. In other words, Iowa caucus voters cannot be said to represent the overall spectrum of potential presidential voters throughout the nation as a whole. But that noted, Iowa is also an important proving ground in showing the ability of a candidate to muster together an actual working coalition. In this regard, the Iowa results indicate that Mondale's support is broad based. He snapped up backing from every geographical part of the state, which - when added to his strong labor constituency - makes him the man to beat for the nomination. Iowa results also indicated a strong bent toward the political left - as opposed to the political center - among Democratic Party activists. Hart, McGovern, and Cranston, all liberals, did better than Glenn, who is considered a centrist candidate.
The Democrats will have to be particularly alert not to hand over the political center to the Republicans. It was precisely because of Glenn's links to the center, as well as his identification as a national hero stemming from his astronaut days, that the Reagan White House had been especially concerned about a Glenn presidential bid.
If Walter Mondale won big in Iowa, so too in a sense did Gary Hart. Hart, who headed George McGovern's presidential campaign in 1972, came in second through a combination of dogged grass-roots campaigning, while also showing impressive debating skills with the other candidates. Hart's good showing, along with that of McGovern, who is popular among many Iowans who remember the senator when he was serving neighboring South Dakota, proves that money alone will not buy a hefty primary win. Glenn far outspent Hart in Iowa. McGovern's spending was almost negligible.
One final factor stands out: Glenn has attacked the former vice-president as being the captive of special interests and organized labor. The tactic did not work - at least in Iowa. In some way, Mondale appears to be insulated from such personal attacks. That may well present a long-range problem for President Reagan and the Republicans, who are also seeking to pinpoint Mondale's link to big labor and what they say is Mondale's tendency to overpromise.