IT started as a joke.
While stealing Iowa's traditional status as the nation's first presidential caucuses, Louisiana GOP officials thought they'd give their putsch some extra punch by letting this town announce its results first.
Standing outside a lunch spot called the Feed Trough, the humor is hard to miss. Iowa the town (pronounced EYE-o-way) is just a hiccup on the Southern Pacific corn-belt line. Its 400 Republicans are unlikely to make much of a difference in the nomination race.
Were it not for Phil Gramm, the rest of Louisiana wouldn't matter much either. Most candidates have decided not to participate in today's Pelican State caucuses, out of deference to Iowa. The main battle for the nomination - Bob Dole vs. media mogul Steve Forbes - is raging elsewhere.
But Senator Gramm, hoping to gain a quick lead in the delegate count, embraced Louisiana. The Texan has bragged for months that he will win in his neighbor state. If he stumbles, which now seems possible because of an aggressive advance by Pat Buchanan, Gramm could damage his candidacy before the race really begins.
As such, Louisiana is a study in the mechanics of this year's compacted primary schedule, the new pitfalls and opportunities candidates face as states jostle each other for greater influence in the nominating process.
''Gramm and Buchanan are fighting it out in their own private primary,'' says William Schneider, a political analyst with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. ''If Buchanan wins in an upset, it is big news.''
Why? Gramm, Mr. Buchanan, and a third candidate, Alan Keyes, are battling for the conservative vote. All three are trying to establish momentum to break from the pack and emerge as the viable alternative to Senator Dole or Mr. Forbes.
Early momentum is vital, because subsequent states hold different advantages or disadvantages. Gramm has a leg up in Iowa, Buchanan in New Hampshire. The candidates could cancel each other out in those two states. That makes Louisiana important for Buchanan. If he stings Gramm, he does more than steal a headline. He hurts Gramm on his home turf, the South.
Candidates whistle 'Dixie'
Because it failed to attract all candidates, Louisiana lost its bid to bring the South greater influence in the nomination process. Over the course of a generation, the South has been transferring its allegiance to the Republican Party. It is the nation's most cohesively conservative region. But its primaries come late enough - Super Tuesday is March 12 - that the race is often over before it reaches the Sunbelt.
Both Gramm and Buchanan are counting on the race to still be competitive by Super Tuesday - Gramm, because it is his home region, and Buchanan, because it is conservative. A win in Louisiana could give either camp the credentials to hang on until the race turns south in March.
Gramm was quick to realize the possibilities in Louisiana, and he gained support from about 80 percent of the state's top GOP officials for backing their early caucuses. For a while, it looked as if the caucuses would be a statewide Gramm party.
Then Buchanan came in, started plying his tough-trade populism and ardent social rhetoric, and the scale started to tilt the other way. His stand against the North American Free Trade Agreement and the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs took root among laid-off textile workers and beleaguered Gulf fishermen. An independent poll late last week gave Buchanan a slim advantage.
The wild card may be religious conservatives. While Gramm has the backing of the Christian Coalition's state director, Buchanan won the endorsement of the state's new Republican governor, Mike Foster, who rode to power last fall with support from the Christian Coalition.
The constituency is important, because it has permeated the party. ''The Christian Coalition has only recently become influential, but is pushing the old guard out of the way,'' says Bernie Pinsonat, director of Southern Media Research in Baton Rouge. ''They give Buchanan a fighting chance.''
Of course, all of this is mostly smoke and mirrors. The caucuses aren't expected to bring out heavy voter participation, and none of the 21 delegates up for grabs will be formally committed to any candidate. That won't happen until the Republican National Convention in San Diego in August, at which time the delegates can change their allegiance. So, for the moment, it's a race for perceptions.
''Very little will be settled'' by the caucuses, says John Rondino, a strategist for Mr. Keyes. ''In San Diego, everyone will get their share.''