It happened four winters ago, back when Iowans were masters of the political universe, playing host to 10 Democratic candidates and 3,000 reporters. The Iowa caucuses had become the gateway to the presidential campaign, the nation's first test of citizen sentiment, the place where so many hopefuls have taken flight - or sunk from sight in the rich black soil.
But this year, on their 20th anniversary, the Iowa caucuses are a mere footnote, thanks to the native-son candidacy of Sen. Tom Harkin. Nobody is petting the pigs, or parrying questions about disarmament, or hauling satellite dishes along the wind-whipped streets of Des Moines.
So it's no wonder that Bierkamp, who works part time at a supermarket for $4.75 an hour, is eager to reminisce: "My husband wanted to see Dukakis for
himself. We've been spoiled by always having the opportunity to see, smell and touch these people. That's missing this year.
"So when Dukakis came through Creston, my husband told him that one of our daughters was going to Boston to work as a nanny. We've raised eight children. He told this story about our daughter - and Dukakis had no response whatsoever. Didn't react at all. An empathetic person would react. My husband felt so let down.
"And you know what? In that debate with Bush, when Dukakis was asked what he'd do if his wife was raped, and he made all that fancy legal talk, I wasn't surprised. I turned to somebody and said, 'He just lost the election.' "
Poor Iowa. Its family farms are shuttered, its economy has been humbled for a decade, and now its famed Democratic caucuses will be staged on Feb. 10 with scant national scrutiny - because Harkin has sought to turn the event into an endorsement. The consensus is that he needs 60 percent on caucus night to avoid embarrassment.
To many Iowans, this quiet caucus season is a darn shame. Where else has in-your-face politicking been practiced to the point of parody? Even in New Hampshire, expensive TV ads are beamed from Boston. Candidate ads were never big in Iowa. In Iowa, candidates don aprons and do the dishes. Candidates, as Bierkamp put it, "are ordinary people who happen to be on a special mission."
And on caucus night, citizens don't vote in a booth. They must declare right in front of their neighbors - the first step in a complex delegate- selection process. In this video era, caucuses are a throwback to a time when politics was civic entertainment, a tactile experience, something you could see, smell and touch.
On caucus night 1988, roughly 125,000 Democrats turned out, one-fifth of all party registrants. This year, attendance could plummet to 30,000. Harkin's opponents, strapped for cash and resources, have ceded the state to him. Only Paul Tsongas still lists a local campaign phone number. Nobody answers it.
Des Moines lobbyist Ed Campbell, former Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former party chairman, said: "I don't like Harkin coming in and shutting it down. Nobody's going to want to stand up publicly against Harkin. It's political intimidation. Makes me angry as hell. It's tough enough to get people to participate.
"Politics is no fun anymore. Years ago, it used to be a social deal. People'd work their a-s off, have a pizza, and feel they got something out of it - maybe not a job, but at least a candidate who'd stand for something. Today, there's too much competition for people's time. Monday is church night. Tuesday is bowling night, whatever. But the caucus can break through all that."
Campbell's ire is shared by a good number of Iowans who think Harkin is out for himself. But State Party Chairman John Roehrick demurred: "I've never known Iowans to be intimidated. Tom was told that he shouldn't be disenfranchised from running just because he was from Iowa. If he gets to the White House, we'll all benefit."
Still, Roehrick added: "The biggest complaint these days is that people have been removed from the political process. But (the caucuses have) allowed everyone to be hands-on."
Indeed, spend any time with Iowans, and the nostalgic yarns tumble out.
About the voter, who, when asked for his view of Gary Hart, replied: "I haven't made up my mind. I've only talked to him twice."
About how an obscure Georgian named Jimmy Carter was put on hold for 15 minutes while a homemaker finished cutting her son's hair.
About how Gephardt wooed a Cedar Rapids activist by flipping pancakes in her kitchen and plying her with ceramic figurines.
About how a citizen rose from his chair and told Sen. Alan Cranston, to his face, "Boy, are you dumb!"
"Jesse came to my house," recalled Bierkamp. "That man won't sit still for five minutes at a time. He's in a seat, then he jumps up and gets on the phone. But while he was here, one of his staffers lost a family member. Jesse spent 15 minutes straight in my bedroom rocking chair, talking to this person. That showed me how he genuinely cared.
"And Ethel Kennedy? She came over, too (while stumping for her brother-in- law in 1980). She was excited about seeing such a large family, but she was so disappointed. We'd farmed the kids out, had them taken to a pizza parlor."
All this fuss made Iowans feel important, particularly when the Eastern media big shots showed up to validate matters. Iowans took to slinging the lingo with alacrity; at one point, a farmer asked a reporter, "Can this be on deep background?"
Margo McNabb can tell you media stories. For 39 years she has lived in Ames, 120 miles north of Creston, in a pea-green bungalow that cries for a paint job. The floor vibrates whenever the Chicago Northwestern railroad trundles past, pulling boxcars of fruit and grain. The hallway is lined with stacks of newspapers and shelves of bric-a-brac, leaving scant room for a camera crew.
"NBC, they pulled up here," said McNabb, a loyal Democrat from way back. ''We had a crew in this room. See, I always host people after the caucuses. My husband and I serve soda pop. No beer. We don't drink it, so I don't buy it for others. Makes sense to serve as you always serve. NBC was here 45 minutes. They were out photographing the dead leaves in our front yard, you know. My husband just shook his head. It changes things, when you have a camera."
It changes things. . . . That's why Hugh Winebrenner thinks the caucuses had become a farce anyway, an exercise in media overkill. As far back as 1976, the state Democratic Party was selling $10 tickets to anyone who wanted to watch the press at work in the Hilton ballroom.
"It's gotten totally out of control," said Winebrenner, a Des Moines professor who has written a book on the caucuses. "The numbers on caucus night aren't reliable, but the press has this hunger for early data. Iowa wasn't treated as the first inning of a long ball game. It was treated like the Super Bowl."
After all, caucus results are merely a rough estimate of delegate strength. Caucus-goers tend to be activists who don't reflect statewide sentiment - and the state itself, 97 percent white, is unrepresentative of the nation. Besides, winning here guarantees nothing: Gephardt placed first in 1988, but sagged in the South. And distant runners-up - Hart in 1984, George McGovern in 1972 - have "won" simply by doing better than expected.
Ed Campbell doesn't like it when the critics sound off. He said of Winebrenner, "I'd think that, just from an economic point of view, he should keep his mouth shut."
Last time, at least $20 million flowed into Iowa - rental cars, lodging, printing costs, bar tabs, you name it.
But what Campbell really misses most is the sense of connection: "Carter got his start in Iowa, remember, and after he got elected, he had 500 of us to the White House. We had the run of the place. Got drunk, had a great time. Couldn't believe we were there. We drove right up front in a taxi. Guys rented tuxedos that had never worn one. The women went out and bought new dresses."
All this nostalgia begs the big question: Will the caucuses make a comeback? Has Harkin shattered Iowa's image as the nation's first proving ground, or is 1992 an aberration?
McNabb was midway through one of her domestic tales ("Sen. Paul Simon gushed, 'Isn't that the most terrific baby you've ever seen?' Come on. I sent flowers when that baby was born, but I thought his reaction was fake") when she offered a response that spoke for many:
"I'm no born prophet, but I think it'll come back. It's too genuine not to. We're not just a bunch of Plains Indians, you know. The press likes to get started early, and some candidate will decide to make us important again."
Or, to paraphrase a recent Iowa movie: If we hold it, they will come.