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Iowa looks like a different state as it holds today's presidential delegate caucuses under a blanket of snow -- a stunning contrast to the warm, sunny Saturday last August when the Republicans conducted their presidential straw vote in nearby Ames. But it's the same state. And that is the problem.

For more years than I care to remember, I have defended the right of Iowa and New Hampshire to lead off the nominating process, against the many critics who ask why two relatively small and arguably untypical states should always have the privilege of taking first crack at the candidates.

Defending Iowa and New Hampshire is easy, because over the years, I have learned how seriously the voters of these two states take their responsibilities. They make it their business to check out the White House aspirants with care. From high school assemblies to insurance company auditoriums, from church basements and coffee shops to libraries and town halls, they turn out to quiz the candidates and size up their characters.

It may not be an ideal system; certainly, it is true that minorities are underrepresented in the two electorates. But it is a good thing for this democracy that before the candidates are swept up in an expensive exercise of mass communications in the later primaries and the general election, they engage in sustained, face-to-face conversation with the voters of these two states.

But what happens in Iowa and New Hampshire is more than conversation; it's an elimination contest. And at least on the Republican side, Iowa makes the candidates jump through two hoops: first, the August straw poll and then the delegate caucuses. To be blunt about it, Iowa doesn't deserve two bites at the apple, when so many other states get none.

The Iowa Republican Party, according to its chairman, Kayne Robinson, sold the presidential campaigns about 35,000 tickets (at $25 a head) for last August's event in Ames, and almost 24,000 people were patient enough to wait in line to mark their presidential preferences in a straw vote that had no official status except for the publicity the press gave it.

Today Robinson expects four to five times as many Republicans to brave the wintry blasts and demonstrate enough patience to spend two hours or more at precinct caucuses that will actually begin the Iowa delegate selection process.

Unless Robinson and other Republican veterans are all wet, today's result will duplicate last August's finish: George W. Bush, first; Steve Forbes, second; everybody else, fighting for scraps. The score will likely be the same, because the straw poll and the caucuses test the same thing: the ability of candidate organizations to turn out a fraction of the voting population for an arduous endurance exam. Those who have the most to spend on organizing -- Bush and Forbes -- are almost sure to win.

It is useful to test those organizations, but to do it twice in six months in the same place is redundant. Iowa Republican leaders love the "double-dipping," because, as Robinson told me, the visiting national campaigns have helped the state GOP raise about $1.5 million in this cycle.

But at quite a cost: The straw poll campaign was so expensive, and the payoff so paltry, that two seasoned candidates, Dan Quayle and Lamar Alexander, pulled out of the race soon after, and a third, Pat Buchanan, decided to leave the GOP and seek the Reform Party nomination. That's a fairly hefty price for the national party to pay so the Iowa Republicans can feel flush.

Iowa Democrats will also caucus tonight, with the advantage of labor and teachers' support making Al Gore a strong favorite over Bill Bradley. But the Democrats had no straw-poll preliminary, and no one bailed out of their race prematurely.

The national GOP is re-examining its nominating process. It would be justified in telling Iowa Republicans, "We love you guys, but you really have to choose. If you want the financial and publicity bonanza of your straw poll, then delay your caucuses until other states have started picking delegates in the election year. And if you want to be first in electing delegates, then scrap the straw poll -- or let some other state have that wonderful summertime event in the pre-election year."

There are lots of states, south and west of here, that would be happy to fill the breach.

Washington Post Writers Group

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