All of the mainstream media are focused on the quadrennial ritual in Iowa. But this year, more than ever, the whole circus seems irrelevant.
Rick Santorum, who spent the most time in the caucus state and built the strongest ground organization, is likely to be the big news for a day, with a strong finish that will mean exactly nothing to the eventual Republican ticket.
Like Mike Huckabee, Santorum can look forward to a quick wind-down of his campaign and a future studded with Fox News appearances.
Ron Paul, who seems untouched if not buoyed by revelations of overt racism, is also looking strong. But he's not going anywhere, either.
One good thing about Iowa, it provides a forum for wingnuts. And the wingnuts on the right are often the most interesting candidates. Their politics are often the politics of genuine grassroots movements--even if they are movements of people progressives can't stand.
If you take away the nasty racism, Paul adds an interesting philosophical consistency to conservative politics with his libertarianism. Yesterday I saw a car with bumper stickers declaring "Ron Paul" as well as "War is Not the Answer." By talking about the 1 percent, about corruption in politics, about wars for oil, Paul stirs up the base with some genuine, honest critique of its own corrupt and cynical leadership. (Of course, he also rallies the base to oppose life-saving health care for the uninsured. You can't have everything.)
But mostly, Iowa has turned into a test of antiabortion purity.
Hence, as Amanda Marcotte points out in a good recent piece on Alternet, despite media analysis of Iowa's relatively good economic health, the impact of bank bailouts, farm policy, and the end of the war in Iraq, the real issue in the Republican primary is abortion.
Marcotte attributes Paul's strength not to his libertarianism, but to his understanding that abortion is practically the only issue in Iowa: "Paul has been blanketing Iowa with anti-choice ads that make the risible and extremely unlikely claim that he saw doctors throwing a live baby away to let it die," she reports.
Driving across the border from Wisconsin, you can feel the shift in atmosphere in a state where the Christian Right is so strong. Anti-abortion billboards appear every few hundred yards.
I once accidentally stayed in an evangelical Christian B&B in Iowa, where I made the mistake of telling the owners I was from Madison, Wisconsin--thinking they would see me as a fellow Midwesterner. Instead, I got an earful about liberal Madison and the Sodom and Gomorrah that is the University of Wisconsin campus. Oops.
If some combination of Santorum and Paul finish at the top in Iowa, it may be a final blow to what mainstream media types from the East Coast have long viewed as an archaic ritual. Democracy--especially democracy in a rural state that consists of hours-long town hall meetings--has long seemed ridiculous to CNN anchors who can't get a good latte, have to depend on inferior hair and makeup techs, and deplore the flat, winter landscape of Iowa.
For that reason alone, it will be too bad if Iowa finally loses its power in the primaries.
Both the Republican and Democratic parties are moving to more and more condensed primaries, requiring heavy financing to run massive, multi-state TV ad buys.
In Iowa, at least, a few ordinary citizens with strong beliefs and values can register their opinions.
That's a much better place to get a toehold for a genuine, democratic politics--the kind that might favor the 99 percent--than in the big-time circus that is to follow.
If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Tommy Thompson's Secret Talks with Walker."
Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter