By MARSHA MERCER
Hold that thought when you see reporters all aflutter about the power of Iowa as Republicans gather in schools and firehouses Tuesday night to back their favorite presidential candidates.
Four years ago, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was the toast of Iowa Republicans – before he became just plain toast. John McCain limped to fourth place in the Hawkeye State.
It’s worth remembering that often when it comes to choosing presidential nominees, as Iowa goes, so goes Iowa.
In contested Democratic and Republican caucuses since the 1970s, Iowans have picked the eventual party nominees roughly half the time. In 2008, Barack Obama launched his flight to the White House by beating Hillary Clinton and John Edwards in Iowa.
The 2012 GOP contest already has gyrated more than a hoola hoop on a 8-year-old, and polls currently have Mitt Romney and Ron Paul battling for first place.
Mike Huckabee predicts a Ron Paul win – if the weather is foul. Paul’s supporters are “fanatical,” Huckabee says, and won’t let snow and ice derail their crusade.
Alas for Paul, the forecast favors fair-weather fans of Romney. Tuesday in Des Moines will be sunny with a high of 36 degrees, according to weather.com.
A line from Winston Churchill in 1942 seems appropriate as we say goodbye to 2011 and welcome the new political year: “Now is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
January marks the end of the 2012 presidential pregame show. For the last year, the focus has been on the collective “them” – politicians, pundits, pollsters and money men. The New Year is about “us” -- the voters.
“This election is really about you,” Rick Perry told young people in Muscatine, Iowa, the other day. “It’s not about me.” Now he tells us – after spending $2.86 million on TV ads in Iowa in December.
A so-called Super PAC that supports Romney poured only slightly less into ads in Iowa during the month, $2.85 million.
A week after Iowa, on Jan. 10, New Hampshire will vote in its first-in-the-nation primary. People in New Hampshire sometimes say that Iowa picks corn and New Hampshire picks presidents.
From 1952 to 1992, no candidate won the White House without first winning the New Hampshire primary. In ’92, Clinton declared himself the “Comeback Kid” after losing to Paul Tsongas and went on to the win the nomination and the presidency. In 2008, Hillary Clinton came back from her Iowa loss to win New Hampshire, but it wasn’t enough.
Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts with a home in New Hampshire, is leading in Granite State polls. The question is how big a win he gets.
Should we care? Iowa and New Hampshire are hardly microcosms of the United States. Iowa skews older, and Iowa and New Hampshire are whiter than the country as a whole. New Hampshire is also richer and better educated than the United States.
Still, every four years the two states successfully battle to keep their roles as first deciders. They argue that their voters are more engaged and more knowledgeable about the candidates. Besides, someone has to start culling the field.
If Iowa and New Hampshire leave doubts, South Carolina and Florida follow with primaries on Jan. 21 and 31, respectively. Nevada’s caucuses are Feb. 4. And, on March 6, Super Tuesday, 10 states will hold contests, including Virginia, which has a primary. On March 13, Alabama and Mississippi weigh in with primaries.
And, in case you were worried, the candidates are slated to keep debating. Six GOP candidate debates are scheduled in January.
Some analysts predict the process for Republicans to pick their presidential nominee will be long and drawn out. Others say it will be quick work. And then comes the general election campaign.
If we learned anything in 2011, it’s that we don’t know – until the voters have their say.
Happy New Year.