With scarcely more than a week to go before the Iowa caucuses and the Democratic presidential race knotted in a virtual three-way tie, few political observers here are willing to predict who will win the first major electoral contest of 1988.
Although Kansas Sen. Bob Dole seems to be well ahead of Vice President George Bush and the rest of the field in Iowa's Republican campaign, the highly volatile Democratic race is clearly a tossup. At least three contenders--Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis and Illinois Sen. Paul Simon--are thought to have a good shot at coming in first.
And, unless one of those candidates makes a major gaffe over the next few days or a snowstorm keeps many voters home, they are all likely to be densely bunched near the top, making it difficult for any one of them to be seen as having suffered a crushing defeat.
3 Others Not Far Behind
Three other candidates, furthermore, are tightly bunched not far behind, according to the latest polls.
As a result, negative campaigning by the front-runners is intensifying, political commercials now blanket the airwaves and phone banks and field staffers are covering the state, as all the major candidates try to identify and recruit last-minute supporters. Political operatives here believe that victory will go to whomever does the best job of organizing and turning out their supporters on caucus night.
"I think it could go into overtime," said Teresa Vilmain, Iowa coordinator for Dukakis.
The latest Des Moines Register poll of probable caucus-goers, released early in the week, ranked the candidates this way: Gephardt 19%, Dukakis 18%, Simon 17%, former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart 13%, the Rev. Jesse Jackson 11% and former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt 10%. Only Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr., who is not campaigning actively in Iowa, was out of contention at 1%. The poll had a margin of error of nearly 5%, so the top three candidates were essentially tied.
"I'm not one who believes that organization is all that matters in the Iowa caucuses--I believe a candidate's message is paramount--but in a race this close, organization will matter," said Steve Murphy, Gephardt's Iowa coordinator.
Car Pools Planned
So the campaigns are putting a premium on recruiting precinct captains and local coordinators who can help organize car pools to get senior citizens and other supporters to their caucuses. Some of the campaigns are even importing fleets of four-wheel-drive vehicles from other states in case there is a blizzard on caucus night.
"We'll try and have cars and drivers in every county," Murphy said.
The stakes in Iowa are higher for some candidates than for others. The two Midwestern candidates, Gephardt and Simon, will be seriously damaged and may have to quit the race if they do poorly here. Gephardt has signaled how important Iowa is to his candidacy by pulling his staff out of almost every other state to concentrate here, and Simon has said specifically that he will withdraw if he does not "do very well" by coming in first or a close second.
But, although the race remains volatile and the outcome virtually impossible to predict, each candidate has pockets of strength that he has nurtured over the last few months and which he must be able to turn out on caucus night if he is to win. The political professionals will be watching these for clues to see which way the race is headed.
Simon Holds Key Edge
Simon, for instance, has built up a huge edge among party regulars in eastern cities such as Davenport and Keokuk, which are just across the Mississippi River from his home state of Illinois.
Simon has also gained the advantage in northwestern Iowa around Sioux City. That is because Simon inherited virtually all of former candidate Joseph R. Biden Jr.'s campaign organization and many of Biden's leading supporters after the Delaware senator dropped out of the race--and Biden had exceptionally strong backing in Sioux City.
Simon will need big turnouts from those areas to offset what many expect will be Dukakis' main advantage--strong support among white-collar professionals in Des Moines and other urban areas. Because 45% of the caucus vote is likely to come from 10 urban counties, Dukakis' strength in Des Moines, and in smaller cities like the college town of Iowa City, could be crucial.
Dukakis, however, could lose some of his white-collar support to Babbitt. The internal polls of most of the major campaigns show that Dukakis and Babbitt share the same base of support among urban professionals.
Gephardt's Strong Areas
Gephardt, meanwhile, seems to have an edge in industrial towns like Burlington and Waterloo, where labor is politically influential, and in Cedar Rapids, Iowa's second-largest city, where Gephardt won the backing of leading party regulars early in the campaign.
"I've kind of always felt Gephardt was ahead here, even when he was down in the polls statewide," said Roger Stone, party chairman for Linn County, which includes Cedar Rapids.
Gephardt also seems to be doing best across the state among senior citizens and blue-collar workers who have not gone to caucuses before, whereas Simon and Dukakis seem to have a slight edge among activists who attended the 1984 caucuses, Murphy acknowledged. Although that means that Gephardt's recent media blitz, led by tough commercials on trade and agriculture, may be sinking in with Iowa voters, it also poses a problem for the Gephardt campaign--making sure these novice caucus-goers actually turn out.
"Honestly, our problem is to get our vote out," Murphy said. "Simon and Dukakis still have an edge in people who will definitely attend the caucuses. So the clue to how we will be doing will be turnout, more than how we are doing in any one geographic area."
Many See a Hart Loss
But, although no one can agree on who is going to win, plenty of Democratic leaders in Iowa now think they know who is going to lose--Gary Hart.
After putting a serious scare into the other campaigns here with his re-entry into the presidential race in December and his immediate climb to first place in the polls, Hart's revived guerrilla campaign now seems to have stalled in Iowa. The Register poll showed Hart plummeting to fourth place, and other polls confirm Hart's decline.
With their low-budget campaigns, Hart and Jackson are at an additional disadvantage: Their small staffs and minimal organization leave them less able to identify and turn out their supporters on caucus night.
Of course, in a campaign as volatile as this one in Iowa, the race could change completely over the next two weeks. In fact, the complexion of the campaign has changed so often over the last few months that no prediction seems to have much value.
Plays Up Upset Angle
Indeed, Babbitt, who many state party officials believe still could do very well here, plays off that uncertainty in a new commercial now airing in Iowa. It depicts a couple listening as a television anchorman reads the news the morning after the election.
"They said it couldn't be done, but today Bruce Babbitt, the candidate they said was too honest to win, stunned his rivals in the Democratic Party by winning the Iowa caucuses. . . . " the anchorman says. "Can it happen?" asks the narrator. "You bet!"