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Jewish World Review Jan. 5, 2000 /26 Teves, 5760

Roger Simon

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Deciphering 'Beltway' talk and fashion -- I am in Chicago buying winter pants and the salesman asks me when I need them.

By Iowa, I say.

"Excuse me?" he says.

Or if you can't do them by Iowa, you have to have them ready no later than New Hampshire, I say.

The salesman starts looking around the store as if he might find someone to translate, when I realize that I am outside the Washington Beltway and people think in different terms.

Inside the Beltway, almost everyone I know has his or her life directed toward the Iowa presidential caucuses on Jan. 24 and the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 1.

The people I know are not making plans for the new year, they are making plans for the first caucus and first primary. Like me. Both Iowa and New Hampshire are very cold in January and February, and you can't really buy winter clothes in Washington. A city of Northern charm and Southern efficiency, Washington likes to pretend the weather is moderate all year round (it isn't) and so the stores make no concession to the cold.

Which is why I am in Chicago, the city I grew up in and a city that understands winter. Why Des Moines is so much colder than Chicago I do not know. But it is.

Four years ago, the Iowa caucuses were preceded by weeks of record cold when the thermometer stayed below zero for day after day. So this time I will be prepared: I have bought long underwear, I am buying winter pants, and I already have my pencils.

Why pencils? Try taking notes with a pen when it is 10 degrees below zero.

Go ahead and try.

Sensible candidates would stay indoors on such days, but voters in both states put a high value on the "icicle effect," which means the voters like to see candidates standing outside with icicles dangling from their noses. It gives the voters a good laugh.

And the candidates feel they must go along, even though Iowa and New Hampshire possess less than 2 percent of the U.S. population. One reason the candidates will be spending just about all their time there is that those two states account for about a third of all the media coverage in the entire primary season.

The reason is not profound. Somebody has to be first. The curtain has to go up somewhere. And nobody wants to miss an opening night. How did Iowa get to be first? A lousy mimeo machine. Here's the true story: The precinct caucuses in Iowa are only the first step in selecting delegates that go to the national conventions. After the precinct caucuses come the district caucuses and then the state caucus. And in between each, a great deal of information has to be printed up and handed out. In 1972 the Iowa Democratic Party had an old mimeograph machine that worked at a slow and deliberate speed.

"We had to give it enough time to print the material between the precinct and district caucuses," Clif Larson, then chairman of the party said. "The only way to do that was move up the precinct date to January."

And that is how Iowa became the first caucus state. I am not exactly sure how New Hampshire became the first primary state. But I do know this: Any time anyone gets the bright idea of holding a primary before New Hampshire, he usually disappears and is found tied to a maple tree with sap dripping on his head. And he is usually found in May. Which is when the snow melts.

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