After months of campaigning and rote debates, America's quadrennial ritual of selecting a president will begin Monday in the chilled heartland of Iowa - and there are reasons to watch.
True, each major party's front-runner - Texas Gov. George W. Bush for the Republicans and Vice-President Al Gore for the Democrats - is expected to win easily in that state's nominating caucuses. Opinion polls in Iowa have held steady for months.
But a low voter turnout could bring some surprising results - particularly among the Republicans - and there is always the inexplicable law of expectations, which can turn losers into winners and vice versa.
Bush and Gore "started in front, they have all the advantages, and they haven't faltered," says Hugh Winebrenner, a political expert at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. "The only possible problem could be the expectations game."
The latest Des Moines Register poll shows Governor Bush at 45 percent among registered Republicans, Steve Forbes at 18 percent, and the remaining candidates in single digits. Sen. John McCain of Arizona - nationally, the only other Republican thought to have any chance against Bush for the GOP nomination - is polling at 8 percent in Iowa, a significant total given that he decided not to compete in the state.
For the two Democratic candidates, the numbers have also not budged in the past couple of months: The latest Register poll shows Vice President Gore at 54 percent and former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey at 33 percent.
The main concern now for all the campaigns is turnout. Opinion polls are meaningless if voters don't actually attend the caucuses, and the biggest danger now is that many who intend to take part decide to stay home. Participating in a caucus requires more effort than simply voting in a primary - it is an evening-long affair of discussion and persuasion. Bad weather could drive away the less-committed.
" [Apathy] is growing as the caucus gets closer," says Arthur Miller, a political analyst at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. "Some of the people probably feel that ... the front-runners are going to win anyway, so what's the big deal. The other thing is they haven't really found the debates all that exciting."
Indeed, history has shown that Iowa polls can be a poor predictor of caucus results, particularly since the rise of the religious right as a political force in 1988. As a bloc, these voters are typically Republicans, but some are independent or Democratic, and so are undersampled in polls of Republican caucus-goers. (Voters may attend a caucus of either party.)
In 1988, the polls a week before the caucuses showed the Rev. Pat Robertson, a GOP presidential candidate and later founder of the Christian Coalition, at 13 percent. He got 25 percent. In 1996, conservative populist Pat Buchanan, also popular with the religious right, had 11 percent in the last poll and got 23 percent in the actual caucuses. Mr. Forbes, running last time just on economic issues, polled at 16 percent but received 10 percent.
Four years later, the campaigns are keenly aware of Iowa's history and are trying hard to shape expectations. For Bush and Gore, the key is not to do significantly worse than the polls indicate. For the four Republicans identified with the religious right - Forbes, Gary Bauer, Alan Keyes, and Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah - the key is to harness their highly motivated constituency and exceed expectations.
With the exception of Forbes, who is financing his campaign largely with his own money, the religious conservative candidates need a boost coming out of Iowa to keep competing through the New Hampshire primary (Feb. 1) and South Carolina (Feb. 19).
Mr. McCain of Arizona presents the most interesting case. He is polling very strongly in New Hampshire, and may well win that primary. But he opted to buck conventional wisdom and not compete in the Iowa caucuses, in part to save resources for later primaries and also because he opposes the federal subsidy of ethanol, a sacred cow in Iowa.
Even without competing, McCain is still getting 8 percent in the Des Moines Register poll - a sign that his national publicity has reached voters in that state, and analysts say that he actually might have done very well in Iowa if he had opted to compete there.
If McCain breaks into double digits in Iowa, he could get a big bounce going into New Hampshire. But even well short of that, McCain could win for losing in the Hawkeye State.
"Expectations are so low that I think almost anything he does could be interpreted as a moral victory," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society