By David Yepsen, chief political reporter, Des Moines Register

Iowa's precinct caucuses became an early, if controversial, test of strength for major party presidential candidates during the 1970s and 1980s. Other states and critics seek to find ways to limit the significance of the caucuses, and Iowa works to resist those efforts.

Early in each presidential election year, Iowa Democrats and Republicans gather in each of Iowa's approximately 2,500 precincts to conduct party business and express an early preference for a presidential candidate.

Since it is the first test of strength for candidates in both parties, national party leaders and reporters pay close attention to the results. Iowans seem to enjoy the extensive courting, media attention and spending by candidates and reporters that come with the caucuses.

Since they became nationally significant in 1972, the Iowa caucuses have provided important early boosts to George McGovern in 1972; Jimmy Carter in 1976; George Bush in 1980; and Gary Hart in 1984. Caucus losses have slowed many other candidates. Iowa political leaders often said Iowans had the job of reducing the field of presidential candidates for the rest of the nation.

In the 1988 campaign cycle, the 13 presidential candidates in competition on caucus night spent an estimated 846 days and deployed 596 staffers in the state during the two years that preceded the February 8, 1988, caucus night balloting. In addition, about a half dozen potential candidates also spent time in the state, driving the total "days spent" figure to nearly 1,000 days. An estimated 3,000 reporters from around the country and the world were credentialed to cover the events.

Critics of the caucuses said too much attention was paid to those results because Iowa was not a microcosm of the nation as a whole. Supporters, particularly Iowa politicians, argued that no state was reflective of the entire country and that Iowa was only the beginning of the process.

Doing well in the caucuses required candidates to build extensive organizations to get out their supporters on caucus night. To do that, candidates devoted large amounts of campaign time to the state. In 1988, for example, both Democrats Richard Gephardt and Michael Dukakis said they campaigned in every one of Iowa's 99 counties.

Candidates were able to legally spend $750,000 apiece on campaigns in Iowa and much of that money was devoted to television commercials just prior to the caucuses. Because of loop- holes in spending laws, actual spending was higher. Local officials said spending by candidates and reporters was an economic windfall to the state.

The caucuses weren't always an early test of presidential candidate strength. They became important because, in 1968, the Democratic Party was torn apart by controversies over the Vietnam War. Iowa Governor Harold Hughes was selected to chair a national Democratic Party commission to open up the party to more people and minority groups who felt left out of the party affairs. The Democrats adopted a series of rules requiring that plenty of notice be given about meetings and that party members be given plenty of time to discuss platform resolutions.

To accomplish this and still hold their state convention in June, state Democratic leaders decided to hold their caucuses in late January. A young campaign manager for an obscure presidential candidate that year was Gary Hart and he decided to exploit that decision. He was the leader of South Dakota Senator George McGovern's presidential campaign. Hart was looking for a way for his candidate to get some media attention before the important New Hampshire primary and thought the vote taken at the Iowa caucuses in 1972 would provide him with that attention. McGovern organized in Iowa and finished close behind Maine Senator Edmund Muskie. That result surprised political reporters and McGovern received his boost of media attention.

This was also an example of the "expectations game" played by candidates in the caucuses. They hope to do better than reporters and politicians expect in order to garner extensive media attention. A finish that was expected, or that was worse than expected, has sometimes proved harmful to a candidate.

In 1975-1976, an unknown former Georgia Governor, Jimmy Carter, expanded McGovern's strategy and campaigned extensively in Iowa and won. After he won the presidency, his Iowa strategy was quickly adopted by other candidates. Carter attributed some of his success to his favorable finish in Iowa.

Also in 1976, Iowa Republicans agreed to hold their caucuses on the same night as the Democrats, primarily to capture some of the media attention. President Gerald Ford's narrow victory over Ronald Reagan in a straw poll in sample precincts was taken as an early sign of Ford's weakness as a candidate.

In 1979-1980, Republican George Bush upset front runner Ronald Reagan for the nomination in Iowa. Reagan and Bush fought a long battle for the GOP nomination. After Reagan won, he turned to Bush as his running mate to heal the party. The two later defeated Carter in the November election. Once again, Iowa was credited with giving Bush an early boost.

On the Democratic side in 1980, President Carter used the contest to fight off a challenge from Senator Edward Kennedy. By now, many national politicians were saying too much emphasis was placed on Iowa.

For the 1984 cycle, Iowa state Democratic party leaders, and New Hampshire Democratic officials, reached an agreement that called for Iowa to hold the first caucus in the nation and New Hampshire to hold the first primary eight days later.

In 1984, it was the Democrats who were looking for a candidate. Walter Mondale, from neighboring Minnesota, was a heavy favorite and won Iowa. A question facing the Democrats was whether any of the other candidates would emerge to challenge him for the nomination. Gary Hart, then a Colorado senator, finished second and the surge from that finish helped him win the New Hampshire primary eight days later. Mondale narrowly won the nomination that year.

In 1988, both parties were looking for candidates and the parade of candidates to Iowa began in earnest shortly after the 1984 election. After the 1986 midterm election, a presidential candidate was a regular feature somewhere in Iowa during 1987.

The 1980's saw hard economic times in rural America and that played heavily on the outcome of the 1988 race. In both parties, caucusgoers went for candidates from neighboring states as ones who understood the region's problems. Republicans gave the nod to Kansas Senator Robert Dole. Democrats gave the nod to Missouri Congressman Richard Gephardt. The number two Democratic finish went to another neighbor, Illinois Senator Paul Simon.

The 1988 campaign also saw the growth of conservative and evangelical strength inside the Iowa GOP. Former Christian broadcasting executive Pat Robertson mounted an extensive grassroots campaign in Iowa among Republican conservative and evangelical voters and beat George Bush for second place.

But Gephardt and Dole didn't last long. Both were defeated in the New Hampshire primary and lost the nomination. Their defeat took some of the sheen from the caucuses and many political observers predicted the 1992 caucuses would no longer be as important as they had once been.

The 1992 caucuses were less important, but for a different reason. Iowa Senator Tom Harkin sought the Democratic presidential nomination. Harkin had hoped a big win in his homestate caucuses would give him a big boost of media attention and financial contributions. Instead, Harkin's candidacy prompted the other Democratic contenders to bypass the February 10 caucuses in favor of the February 18 New Hampshire primary. While Harkin got 77 percent of the caucus vote, few observers were impressed and his candidacy faltered with a fourth place showing in New Hampshire.

In 1996, the Iowa caucuses rebounded in significance. Shortly after the 1992 election, Republican presidential candidates began campaigning in Iowa. Eventually, eight GOP contenders campaigned hard in Iowa. While caucuses in Alaska and Louisiana were held ahead of Iowa's, those had much smaller turnouts and the nation's political limelight was still on Iowa in February.

Kansas Senator Robert Dole was the early frontrunner but won a narrow victory. Total turnout for the GOP caucuses was an estimated 96,451. The caucuses played their traditional role of narrowing the field of candidates. Only the top three finishers in Iowa - Dole, former commentator Patrick Buchanan and former Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander were viable contenders in the New Hampshire primary.

On the Democratic side in Iowa, President Bill Clinton was unopposed for his party's nomination and party leaders estimated their caucus turnout at about 50,000.

Iowa's role in the 2000 caucuses again put the state on the national political stage. With President Clinton constitutionally unable to run for re-election, both parties had vigorous contests for their presidential nominations. Two Democratic candidates and a dozen Republicans vied for votes in their respective caucuses.

Beyond 2000, it is unclear what role Iowa will play. Other states are demanding more attention from candidates and have moved their primaries and caucuses closer to Iowa's. This "compression" of the national political calendar has drawn criticism from those who say the nomination contests are starting too early and will end before many Americans have a say in selecting the nominee. Some have suggested a series of regional primaries for the 2004 election, but Iowa political leaders have promised to fight to keep Iowa first.

Leaders in both parties have said the caucuses are a vital party-building asset. While the media attention and money is important to Iowa, party leaders believe the caucus campaigning helped Iowa become a strong two-party state during the period. In 1980, some 115,000 Republicans and 100,000 Democrats turned out for the caucuses. The record for attendance was set in 1988 when 125,000 Democrats and 109,000 Republicans participated.

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