AUSTIN, Texas -- You must admit, the Iowa caucuses gave us a trove of delights.

First there is the incomprehensible second-place finish of Steve Forbes, a man with the charisma of former guv Dolph Briscoe. Now your cynics would argue that Forbes proves that with enough money, you can elect a can of Alpo president of this country.

What could be more mysterious than why voters would respond to Steve Forbes? Is he cuddly? Does he seem like a statesman? Do you think he feels our pain? Does he have a distinguished record? Do we actually think the most crucial problem facing America today is that rich people need more money?

My long-held theory that Steve Forbes is an extraterrestrial (no belly button on that one) may be relevant here. Forbes proposes to completely scrap our current tax system -- always a satisfying notion in and of itself -- and replace it with a flat tax instead. Why would anyone except those in Forbes' tax bracket favor a move like that? And why would even rich Americans, who Lord knows are making out like bandits in this two-tier economy, feel entitled to even more?

(Granted, a flat tax has the charm of simplicity, rather like those folksy nostrums that Ross Perot used to offer: "Let's look under the hood." "The national debt is like a crazy aunt being kept in the basement.")

Pardon me if I got this wrong, but aren't those Iowa farmers who say they want less government the same people who now declare the Republican "Freedom to Farm Act" (the Gingrich Republicans always favored giving their bills cute names designed to mask the intent of the bill) a disaster and want to go back to the old system or something with higher subsidies?

Aren't they the ones who got angry at Bill Bradley because he voted against the pork in a disaster-relief package while much of Iowa was flooded? Aren't these the people who refuse to consider supporting anyone opposed to the ethanol subsidy (a useless piece of junk, a total failure and something that mainly benefits Archer-Daniels-Midland, a company quite famous for its generous political contributions)?

And they vote for Steve Forbes because they want less government in their lives?

I was pleased to see Alan Keyes take third place on the Republican side. He is so clearly the most articulate and effective spokesman for the case of the social conservatives that I think it's a case of virtue rewarded.

Loads of cheap cynics kept muttering, "Chance of a snowball in hell" and, "What does he expect, running in the Republican Party?" Iowa social conservatives, you may have noticed, are very white, while Mr. Keyes is very black, and I think it speaks well for both that he was able to win so much of their support.

At 14 percent, he should knock out two other social conservatives who got around 8 percent. Think what he could do if he had money.

Not that I agree with anything he's ever said, but it's a pleasure to hear an argument so well put. Besides, he was the only candidate who went into a mosh pit. But somehow the social conservative case that the country is a moral abyss -- that we're all sunk in sin, the sorriest set of humans since Sodom and Gomorrah, rotten to the core, unrivalled in hedonism since the palmiest days of the late Roman Empire, and so on and so forth -- seems just a bit ... how to say this? ... well, wrong.

I don't know about your friends and neighbors, but mine are exceptionally nice. Besides, it's politically off-putting to claim that you wear the mantle of morality, as though everyone who disagrees with you is immoral.

Our Boy Shrub Bush gets the prize for most disingenuous post-caucus statement. "I never dreamed I would get this high a vote," said Dubya, a man who does not believe his own polling. The good news for Bush is that he drew his 41 percent nicely from across the entire Republican spectrum: social conservatives, anti-taxers, country club types. I'd say this was a good solid win, although the more reserved "respectable win" favored by many pundits probably has more to do with money spent than percentage drawn. Bush also drew well among R's whose main reason for voting for him is that they think he's the most likely to win. This is good news indeed for Democrats, who are shaping up to nominate Al Gore. If the R's were bright enough to nominate John McCain, we'd lose every independent vote in the country.

The bad news for Shrub is that he got cornered and then beat over the head on abortion, the subject he least likes to be specific about (except for cocaine). Among the more intellectually rigorous pro-lifers, favoring exceptions for rape, incest or saving the life of the mother is considered a betrayal of the life-begins-at-egg-fertilization theory, which, logically, such exceptions are.

Labor was a big factor on the D side in Iowa. Since I think endorsing Gore is the only mistake I've seen AFL-CIO prez John Sweeney make, I'm sorry to see just how effective the newly energized labor movement is.

That wasn't just Iowa labor people -- they called in organizers from Texas, D.C. and all over the map. I haven't seen them work that hard since the time they had to defeat that workplace-checkoff proposition in California.

I still think it's a swell political year with much more fun to come. It is a shame, though, that the rest of the country doesn't get the same level of exposure to the candidates or the intensity of media coverage of the candidates that Iowa and New Hampshire do.

I have an idea: Let's do something about the nominating system. I know we say this every time, of course. I just thought we might do it for a change.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.