The prime beneficiary of the Iowa caucuses was the battered Iowa economy, pulling in $100 per voter in the caucuses, spent by the candidates mostly in TV advertising. In terms of political import, history instructs that the victory in these caucuses offers a high likelihood of imminent political extinction. It's true that eons ago, in 1976, Jimmy Carter won there, thus helping to put Iowa on the political map (along with R.W. Apple Jr. of the New York Times, who achieved one of the few contacts with political reality of his entire career by predicting that the peanut broker from Plains would do well).

        Gephardt won in the Iowa caucuses in 1988, and the elixir of that meaningless victory sent the Missouri congressman back to Dubuque time and again, each time to endure humiliation, whose probable finale came on Monday night.

        Gephardt was supposedly Labor's candidate, or at least of the leaders of the industrial unions, which sent hundreds of organizers into the state, helping their man to his scrawny 10.8 percent showing. The service and government workers in the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Union (AFSCME) were drafted by their leaders to support Howard Dean. He limped in third, far behind Senators John Kerry and John Edwards. Exit polling showed that union members bucked their leadership, with Kerry getting 29 percent, Edwards and Gephardt 22 percent, and Dean 19 percent.

        Dean had the endorsement of Iowa's senator, Tom Harkin, who won the Iowa caucus in 1992, and also of Jimmy Carter, who characteristically undercut his nod by saying that "he called me, I didn't call him." At the time of his endorsement, Harkin said he preferred Gephardt but thought Dean had a better chance of winning the presidency.

        The only good news for Dean after his Iowa debacle is that he is no longer the front-runner and can run as an outsider again. He was supposed to be bringing into "the electoral process" fresh blood in the form of college students and Web surfers. But Kerry beat him 35 percent to 25 percent among college-age students and by the same margin among those with college degrees.

        A week before the Iowa caucus, a liberal, very senior Democratic U.S. congressman from northern California was speculating to friends that Dean might well be "McGoverned," referring to the way the Democratic Party leadership in 1972 pulled the rug out from under the South Dakotan for being far too liberal and antiwar. This senior Democrat recounted how Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd had snarled in one private party conclave that Dean "should step aside and let the adults take over."

        Aside from being vociferously against Bush's prosecution of the war in Iraq, Dean's threat in Democratic National Committee (DNC) eyes is that he has been raising money independent of the Party's control. Dean spent $3 million of his campaign money in Iowa.

        These days, the Iowa caucuses are rigged to favor candidates in good odor with the DNC, which is part of the reason why Dean did badly. It could be that Dean never was the front-runner in Iowa that brought such panic to the Clinton establishment marshaled by Terry McAuliffe at the Democratic National Committee. The press played him up, as did Karl Rove. But if you believe exit polls, 58 percent of caucus attenders had made up their minds more than a week ago, and of that number, 33 percent voted for Kerry, and only 26 percent for Dean. Edwards was the choice of 19 percent of those early deciders and got 35 percent of those who made their pick within the last week.

        What's Kerry got going for him, apart from the money of his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, who has propelled the sputtered Kerry campaign forward on a sea of ketchup dividends? Not much. Kerry is a chronic fence straddler on issues. Gore Vidal hit it on the head when he remarked that Kerry "looks like Lincoln … (pause) … after the assassination.

        But if Howard Dean represents one nightmare for the party's powerbrokers in the DNC, his slippage in Iowa may portend another. The DNC gerrymandered the primary process by front-loading it, with the proclaimed intent of having an assured nominee by mid-February. But now it easy to envisage a sequence whereby Dean wins in New Hampshire, with Wesley Clark close behind. Edwards wins the next week in South Carolina, with only Gephardt and Mosley Braun definitively out of the race.

        One comfort for Dean comes in the form of the idiocy of the DNC in pushing for a senator as its nominee. After all, the last man to go directly from the U.S. Senate to the White House was John F. Kennedy, who stole the election in 1960 courtesy of his father's money and clout.

        Final irony: George McGovern has now joined Michael Moore and Madonna in endorsing General Wesley Clark, who was publicly denounced by former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Hugh Shelton not so long ago. Shelton stated publicly that the reason the Joint Chiefs yanked Clark out his job as NATO's supreme "had to do with integrity and character issues."

        Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at COPYRIGHT 2004 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.