Iowa: nation's new political gatekeeper

Though atypical of nation, the Hawkeye State is replacing New Hampshire

The seats fill up fast at the community center in West Des Moines - mainly older folks, but just as many men as women.

Eventually, it's standing room only, a scene that must be heartening to GOP candidate Elizabeth Dole as she enters the hall, a vision of green in her trim suit. The crowd listens intently as she works through her standard speech: the story about her first trial as a young lawyer, the recitation of her top-flight rsum, her message of lower taxes and bigger defense.

But talk to these people afterward, and it's clear Mrs. Dole still has a lot more work to do. "I'm still listening to all the candidates," says Eloise Devore of Centerville, Iowa, who was passing through Des Moines. Her husband, a Democrat, smiles coyly and says nothing.

With two days to go before the Iowa Republican Party's nonbinding straw poll, a test of candidates' ability to lure supporters to a political event on a Saturday in August, the scramble for support is on. And Iowans, ever the good citizens, are hearing out the GOP hopefuls.

It has also become clear, imperceptibly and without fanfare, that Iowa has surpassed New Hampshire as the national gatekeeper for presidential politics. Candidates who do poorly on Saturday may well find that their fund-raising dries up and they have no choice but to quit the race. And in January, Iowa will hold the nation's first presidential nominating contest in statewide precinct caucuses - another event that could narrow the field before New Hampshire's primaries.

Why Iowa? And can a state that in many ways is thoroughly unrepresentative of the nation adequately perform this task?

Consider these facts: Iowa's population is 97 percent white. The state has no city with a population of more than 200,000. It has the highest school test scores in the country. Of all 50 states, Iowa has the fewest residents under age 18 - just over 25 percent.

Not that New Hampshire is more "typical." It, too, has a small minority population. And like Iowa, which makes support of the subsidy for ethanol a litmus test for all candidates, New Hampshire has its own quirky political hoop for candidates to jump through, the "no-new-tax pledge."

"The irony of our nomination system is that you can't get two more atypical states than Iowa and New Hampshire," says Henry Kenski, a political expert at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Iowans defend their newly enhanced "first in the nation" status with a vengeance. "People here are conservative - I don't mean politically, just in their way of life," says Greg Lage, a teacher at Colfax-Mingo High School near Altoona, Iowa. "They bring everything in from the extremes."

And they aren't susceptible to fads, he continues. "Iowans are the same as they were 30 years ago - different faces and names, but the same basic people," Mr. Lage says.

Those basic, middle-American values may come back to hurt some of the Republican candidates stumping across the state this week, flashing their big campaign warchests and offering free straw poll tickets, free bus rides to the event in Ames, gourmet food, and top-flight entertainment.

Arthur Miller, a political scientist at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, says he's heard people say they have free tickets from candidate Steve Forbes, an independently wealthy publisher, but they're not sure they'll vote for him.

"There's an undercurrent of anti-money out there," says Professor Miller. "They're willing to take the goodies - they say they hope the food is good! - but they're repulsed by all the money that's being spent."

If they're so repulsed, one has to wonder why they're going at all. The answer, he says, is that, as party activists, they feel duty-bound to show up.

It's also clear, from interviewing residents, that it's given Iowans something of a rush (and a cash bonanza) to see all but one of the GOP candidates swarming the state, wooing them, expressing concern about commodity prices, pledging to maintain the ethanol subsidy, and flattering their conscientiousness and common sense.

As with New Hampshire, it's a chance for a small state (population 3 million) to grab the national spotlight. Playing host to more than 500 journalists, a who's who of political coverage, is also part of the charm.

At the turn of the century, Iowa had 11 congressional districts and California had seven. Now, Iowa has five seats in Congress and California has 52.

Iowa's emergence as a major player in national politics came recently. During the 1976 campaign, an unknown Georgia peanut farmer, Jimmy Carter, won the Iowa caucuses, propelling him into prominence. Since then, most candidates have felt they had to run hard here. The GOP straw poll, created as a fund-raiser for the Iowa Republican Party, has never been more important than this year. Even as some pundits proclaim it "meaningless," the candidates themselves and the media at large have imbued great meaning on what will happen on Saturday - and thus, meaning it will have.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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