WHO CARES ABOUT IOWA?

Let's bring the old Howard Dean back. The one who said the Iowa caucuses are "dominated by special interests" and make no sense for people who work and have kids. Dean imagined himself an ordinary Iowan forced to spend a whole evening at a caucus instead of a few minutes voting. "I can't stand there and listen to everyone else's opinion for eight hours about how to fix the world," he said on a Canadian TV show four years ago. Sure enough, this bit of candor was flung in his face last week by his rivals, part of their ongoing efforts to derail him. He once again ate a heaping portion of his words, which he'd better hope are low in carbs.

Dean was right about the Hawkeye State the first time. As a witness to several caucuses over the years, I can testify that they are heartwarming examples of local democracy in action, but dumb as a guide to who should be the next president of the United States. The juxtaposition of monumental stakes and picayune rules puts one in mind of the 2000 Florida recount. In Iowa, the fate of the nation and the world is supposedly on the line, but some little old lady with a clipboard must calculate the Democratic returns from the prior election (I kid you not) before assessing how many delegates have been selected.

Besides, only Jimmy Carter in 1976 and George W. Bush in 2000 have ever won the White House with the help of Iowa caucus-goers. (And in Bush's case, they were not a fraction as relevant as, say, the voters of South Carolina.) Mostly, Iowa's predictive record is dismal. George H.W. Bush won there in 1980, only to be bested by Ronald Reagan in New Hampshire. Bob Dole swept the caucuses in 1988, before George Bush made a comeback the next week. The same year, Richard Gephardt prevailed in Iowa, and immediately went nowhere.

New Hampshire--now there's a state that deserves its place in the sun. (Especially when it's below zero, as it was last week.) Recent Granite State winners who went on to lose the nomination include Gary Hart, Paul Tsongas, Pat Buchanan and John McCain. But at least New Hampshire actually resembles a real election. The primary there tests the candidates in all the right ways, forcing them to both meet voters face to face the old-fashioned way and survive the cut and thrust of modern media politics. The nice folks in Iowa won't like this, but their caucuses remind me of Washington, D.C., where politics is about base mobilization, polarization and gaming the system. While New Hampshire has no minorities or big cities (there's plenty of both in upcoming primaries), the New England town-hall meeting was the earliest form of American democracy and it remains the best place to watch, listen, ask questions and then go home and think. But the caucus advocates have it wrong--it's not the right place actually to select candidates.

More important, for generations now, the New Hampshire primary has served as an early CT scan on at least some of the inner qualities of future presidents. In 1980, Reagan went to a candidate forum and grabbed control of the chaotic format as George H.W. Bush and his other rivals sat meekly. When Reagan, echoing a Spencer Tracy movie, shouted, "I paid for this microphone, Mr. Breen!" he both sewed up the primary and showed some of the strength that characterized his presidency. In 1992, I watched as Bill Clinton, savaged that day by the revelation of an old letter he had written trying to escape from the Vietnam draft, told hurting workers at an American Legion post in Dover, "I'll be there for you till the last dog dies!" This was the same grit that saved his presidency during impeachment. Even when George W. Bush was swamped by McCain in 2000, his reaction was instructive. While most candidates would have sent heads rolling, Bush kept Karl Rove and stayed cool and focused.

Another thing I like about New Hampshire voters is that they don't usually give a rat's patootie about Iowa. I remember being there in 1984 when Walter Mondale had won a crushing victory in the Iowa caucuses and held a double-digit lead in the New Hampshire polls just a few days before the vote. He lost big to Hart. Al Gore in 1988 and McCain in 2000 skipped Iowa altogether, and it helped them. This time, Joe Lieberman and Wesley Clark are doing the same, and it's working for Clark against Howard Dean.

In NBA terms, Clark is getting a reputation as the Yao Ming of this campaign season. He's new in the league and might as well be from a different country; that's how big the cultural gap between Democrats and the U.S. military became during the past 40 years. That he could help close it--and bring along some of the white males who have become almost an endangered species for the party--makes him deeply tempting for many Democrats, as well for the huge chunk of independents who often tip the balance in New Hampshire. Even a big victory for Dean in Iowa won't make much difference to most of these hardy voters. With huge crowds, a much-improved stump speech and flashes of McCain ("Would all the veterans here tonight please stand"), Clark is throwing a serious scare into the front runner in the snowy hamlets where presidents are so often made.

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