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Iowa enjoys 27-year history as the political king-maker

Iowa enjoys 27-year history as the political king-maker

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Monday, July 26, 1999

By JOHN SKIPPER, Of The Globe-Gazette

MASON CITY - "Message, money, Iowa and New Hampshire."

Those are the four main ingredients to winning the presidential nomination, said Lamar Alexander, two-time GOP candidate for the nomination, during a campaign swing through Mason City in 1995.

Other presidential hopefuls obviously agree, judging from their frequent visits to Iowa for about the past 30 years.

Some of the names are familiar: McGovern, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Dole, Mondale. Others are less well known: Chisholm, Jackson (Henry, not Jesse), Harris, Askew, Hollings, DuPont, Crane, Taylor. All have come and gone. Others have taken their places. Clinton, Gore, Forbes, Buchanan, Bradley, Keyes, Kasich, Quayle, Elizabeth Dole, George W. Bush, Bauer, Smith. Different names, same path. And more are sure to come.

Three of Alexander's components are obvious. Message and money have always been political essentials, and New Hampshire has held the nation's first primary election for several generations, giving it a natural sense of importance.

But how did Iowa, a state that is smaller, whiter, older and more rural than most other states, become such a focal point for presidential politics?

The answer is that Iowa was the birthplace of one of the great political "spins" 27 years ago - the brainchild of an ambitious campaign manager trying to gain national recognition for his obscure candidate. The "spin" worked and politicians have been drawn to Iowa like a magnet ever since.

The year was 1972. The campaign manager was Gary Hart. The candidate was Sen. George McGovern, a relatively unknown Democratic senator from South Dakota.

But the "spin" development really began four years earlier. The 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago was marred not only by protesters clashing with the police on the streets outside the convention hall but by bitter floor fights over seating of delegates inside. Hubert Humphrey got the nomination but lost the November election to Richard Nixon.

Democrats scrambled to regroup. They formed a commission, chaired by Iowa Sen. Harold Hughes, to draft new rules aimed at opening up the party to minorities and others who felt disenfranchised.

The new rules called for more meetings, better advance notice of meetings and new procedures allowing all party members to have the chance to state their views on platform issues. In order to accomplish all of this and still hold their state convention in June, Iowa Democrats decided to move up the date of their caucuses to late January, a seemingly innocent calendar change.

"Part of the problem was slow printers," said Ron Masters, longtime Democratic activist and former Cerro Gordo County party chairman. "With all the new rules, in order to get everything printed and distributed before the convention, it was necessary to move up the caucus date."

Hart, a young, ambitious, shrewd political junkie who would later be a senator from Colorado and a presidential contender himself, noticed that the 1972 Iowa caucuses were to be held ahead of the fabled New Hampshire primary.

He got an organization rolling in Iowa and although Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine won on caucus night, McGovern finished second. Since Muskie was the heavy favorite, Hart hyped his candidate's showing, making McGovern seem like the big winner.

It was McGovern, and not Muskie, who got the media attention going into the nation's first primary in New Hampshire. Hart's Iowa ploy started the ball rolling for McGovern, who eventually won the nomination.

"There's no question McGovern's finish was used as a 'spin' and helped him dramatically," said Hugh Winebrenner, a Drake University professor and author of a book entitled The Iowa Precinct Caucuses: The Making of a Media Event.

"But the caucus change had a more far-reaching impact," Winebrenner told The Globe-Gazette. "It marked the start of the compression of the campaign schedule that has resulted in the mess that we have today where basically, everything is over by the end of March."

Masters said the Iowa caucuses have become the "coming-out party" for candidates. "Anybody can come to Iowa and knock on doors and get recognition they wouldn't be able to get any other way," he said.

In 1976, Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter used the McGovern strategy by practically taking up residence in Iowa a year before the caucuses. On caucus night, he finished second, behind "uncommitted," but he beat every other candidate in the field. The peanut farmer was on his way to the White House.

(Statistically, "Uncommitted" won the most caucus votes in both 1972 and 1976. Muskie and McGovern in '72 and Carter in '76 got the most votes for specific candidates.)

McGovern and Carter established the pattern for future presidential candidates in Iowa caucuses: If you don't win, act like you did. The media impact will be the same.

Republicans took note of what happened with McGovern in 1972. Four years later, they moved their caucus night to be the same as the Democrats. In their caucus in 1976, incumbent president Gerald Ford was the winner, but former California governor Ronald Reagan came in a close second, so close that Ford's victory was tarnished and Reagan got the positive spin. Ford lost in November. Four years later, Reagan was elected president.

The caucus spotlight can have the opposite effect. In 1995 and 1996, Texas Sen. Phil Gramm spent so much time in Iowa that he was considered to be a strong contender. He made more appearances in Mason City than any other candidate. But Gramm finished fifth in the caucus vote and dropped out of the race altogether.

The lesson from past caucuses might best be summarized by Dan Pero, who managed Alexander's 1996 campaign in Iowa. In an interview with the New York Times, Pero said, "If you're not the tiger coming out of Iowa, you want to at least be tied to his tail."

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