With the quadrennial exercise that gives Iowa national political significance by officially kicking off the presidential nominating process only one thing seems clear. Its relevance seems more in doubt than ever.
The mood swings of the Republican caucus participants have come so sharply, and often one has trouble keeping up with who's up one day or down the next. All this seems to indicate is that no candidate really strikes the fancy of Iowa's GOP voters and that mirrors what is going on in the rest of the nation. Barack Obama is unopposed for re-election in the Democratic caucus that gave him a boost in 2008.
Rep. Ron Paul, with a better organization than most, was ahead for a few moments in Iowa following former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's slippage. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney now seems to have gained some ground despite the fact he hasn't spent the time and effort there the others have. Behind them is this small group who courted the state early but whose standing is now negligible -- former Sen. Rick Santorum, former Utah Gov. and Ambassador John Huntsman and Rep. Michele Bachmann, the onetime darling of the Tea Party.
Paul has a strong conservative following in the state but most would agree he has little or no electability. Here is a guy who would abolish Israel and allow firearms in school zones and everywhere else apparently, including nurseries, and that's just for starters. It is difficult to understand how a medical doctor could be so oblivious to the amount of damage firearms do to Americans.
Among the bills the 76-year-old doctor introduced this year were ones to allow private groups to coin their own money, and to withdraw the U.S. from the United Nations. He also would eliminate the income tax and abolish the Education department, a longtime conservative goal of states' rights conservatives. He denies charges that he is an anti-Semite, although a former aide claims that he wants to turn Israel back to the Palestinians.
The fact that a person with these notions in the 21st century has a strong following in Iowa seems to say volumes about the worth -- or lack of it -- of the Iowa voting. Former Arkansas governor and preacher Mike Huckabee won the caucuses in 2008. Well, actually "uncommitted" did. Huckabee merely had more support than the other candidates for whom people actually voted, including Romney, who ran second. Neither won the nomination. That went to Sen. John McCain, who finished a distant fourth in Iowa behind even Sen. Fred Thompson.
Let's face it. The first few actual votes for a nominee are likely to set the tone for the rest of the later ones. Momentum and money follow a victory in only one or two. Because these small early states -- Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina -- hardly represent the national consensus, the current system is a very poor way to choose a president. A far better way would be to hold regional primaries, using the various time zones or delineating them on a north-south, east-west pattern somehow.
The problem is that Iowa and New Hampshire and an increasing number of other states don't want to give up their prominence in the process, nor the money the contests generate. Already, some states have tried to usurp New Hampshire's role as the first actual primary, but there seems no movement for Iowa to give up its position.
Both political parties have fought to stop incursions in the voting timetable, but it is becoming increasingly difficult. It seems inevitable that in the not-too-distant future, the official primary voting will take place December of the year preceding the general election, if not earlier. In fact that nearly happened this year.
Whatever the answer, it is difficult to become excited about what happens in Iowa where there seems to be a good chance that a candidate with the utterly impractical beliefs that Paul professes has a chance of winning.
Gingrich who is running nip and tuck with Romney in the national polls probably needed an Iowa victory as badly as anyone because it could add significantly to a campaign treasury that apparently is nearly empty.
(Dan Thomasson is former editor of Scripps Howard News Service.)