DES MOINES, IOWA
DICK and Judy Watt recently attended a rally for Sen. Bob Dole hoping to hear something that would persuade them to vote for the Kansan. They didn't.
''I'm a little concerned Bob Dole can't get to young people,'' Mr. Watt, an insurance executive, says. ''He doesn't seem to have a strong plan,'' his wife adds.
Texas Sen. Phil Gramm is counting on that kind of reaction to multiply among GOP voters. Ever since the campaign began almost a year ago, Mr. Gramm has languished far behind frontrunner Dole in the polls. Gramm says Dole has name recognition but his support is soft.
Now, with the presidential caucuses here just four weeks away, that calculation is about to get a test. The only question is: If not Dole, who? Gramm is only one of eight alternatives.
Tomorrow night provides an important opportunity for Dole's rivals to win over undecided Iowans when the candidates debate for the last time in this state before the caucuses.
While the front-runner will no doubt be the primary target, look for the others to fling a few terse words at each other as well. That's because Iowa is as much about second place as it is first.
Though Mr. Dole is still expected to triumph, the big unknown is whether anyone will break out of the pack to make a surprise showing - something that could carry over into New Hampshire and perhaps turn 1996 into a race, after all.
''It always helps the front-runner to have divided opposition,'' says political analyst William Schneider. ''It's down to the wire now. Dole will win. The objective is to keep his margin down and come in a solid second.''
Past hasn't always been prologue in Iowa
Iowa, though, is a tricky state. As an early contest in the primary season, it does provide vital visibility. But its results are not always a reliable indicator. George Bush beat Ronald Reagan here in 1980, Walter Mondale beat Gary Hart in 1984, and Dole beat Mr. Bush in 1988. In each of those years, the winner in Iowa lost New Hampshire - and, in effect, the nomination - a week later.
This year, Iowa fits each candidate's equation a little differently. Dole needs a convincing win, probably no less than the 37 percent he garnered in 1988. Since he's won here before, and is a kind of favorite Midwestern son, failure to meet the high expectations would project weakness.
Gramm must win a solid second to beat back rival conservative challengers Pat Buchanan and Steve Forbes, his two biggest threats. Mr. Forbes, who is running second in polls in both Iowa and New Hampshire (and first in a recent poll in Arizona), and Mr. Buchanan have better prospects in the Granite State. Gramm therefore needs momentum from Iowa if he is to claim the position as Dole's principal rival.
Buchanan, meanwhile, has a better base in New Hampshire, so may be able to sustain a mediocre performance here. Forbes has a systemic problem. Caucuses require strong organizations to bring people out on chilly nights to participate in a public meeting.
A campaign based on TV spots lacks the personal connection that inspires caucus goers. New Hampshire's primary is likely to be more important to his success.
As for the rest of the pack, a strong showing in Iowa is crucial to staying in the race. The closer Feb. 12 gets, the harder that becomes, argues Iowa State political scientist Stephen Schmidt. Voters may be starting to shift their support behind a candidate more likely to win.
''Voters may still be shopping a bit, but it's not so much that they are just waking up as they are having to decide whether to stick with one candidate or another,'' he says. Will those who have so far supported Alan Keyes, the former UN ambassador and strong social conservative, transfer their allegiance to Buchanan, who has similar views on issues such as abortion, because Buchanan is more likely to win? he asks
Watch those slippery polls
All Dole's rivals, meanwhile, are counting on the polls being unreliable. That may be the case. States that hold caucuses are extremely difficult to read, Mr. Schneider says.
People may voice an interest in one candidate or another, but that doesn't mean they'll participate on Feb. 12. Caucuses take a few hours, and, because the voting process is public, it can be intimidating.
If reading the crowds gathered at a candidate's rallies is a better indicator, Dole may be just holding support while Gramm is gaining momentum. At his his rally last Saturday, Dole brought in eight Midwestern governors to build enthusiasm with a crowd of 250 people.
Gramm took a respite from the budget battles in Washington to stump in person. In events across the state in the past week, more than one voter echoed the sentiments of Dick Johnson, a utilities manager in Humboldt, who arrived at a Gramm rally undecided. ''Today I heard the man,'' he said, ''and I believed him.''