MARION, IOWA -- Six months from now, in the chill of early February, when Iowans express their presidential preferences in precinct caucuses, the candidates will face the first brutal accounting of winners and losers. A few will walk away taller and stronger, but most will come out weakened and wounded, their hopes marked for early extinction.
But last Saturday night, in the park outside Cedar Rapids, where the Linn County Democrats had their picnic, it was different. It was quiet and peaceful and friendly and -- most of all -- thoughtful, a place where good and gentle people in a sylvan setting could perform one of democracy's most important but unheralded acts: listening carefully. Even the rain, when it came, could not distract them. And the candidates were moved.
Sen. Albert Gore Jr., one of the six hopefuls who spoke from the open-air platform, caught the tone perfectly when he said, ''All of us who have come to your state notice the approach you take. You are almost worried you might make a mistake and choose the wrong candidate, because you know you have such an impact.''
Almost 1,000 Iowans brought their folding chairs and blankets to the park in late afternoon. They stood patiently in lines to fill their plates with bratwurst and beans and potato salad and pick up plastic cups of draft beer. It was a family crowd -- the youngsters spilling down the spiral slides while their parents wandered among the candidates' tables, picking up literature and signing their names to volunteer lists.
And then, in the long twilight, they gathered to listen to the men who would lead their party and country.
The names and faces were just becoming familiar to them; the messages were not hackneyed to their ears. And they listened and watched with an intensity that each of the speakers recognized. ''This is a very special state, a special place, and you are very special people,'' Gov. Michael Dukakis said in a tone that seemed more descriptive than flattering.
However high the ultimate stakes, there is a family feeling to Iowa-style presidential politics, particularly at this early stage. It softens the edge of ambition. Earlier in the afternoon, Dukakis and Gore found themselves scheduled back to back before some 45 Democrats gathered in Mother's Kitchen, a restaurant in Tama. Dukakis was still answering questions when Gore arrived.
It could have been an awkward moment. But Dukakis simply introduced his rival by recalling that in the '50s and '60s Gore's father, the former senator, ''was one of my great heroes'' for his fights against segregation and the Vietnam War.
Gore, clearly touched, told the Tamans, ''I've never been introduced by an opponent before -- and never so well.''
Now, as young Gore spoke to the crowd, his gray-haired father sat on the steps leading to the platform, his eyes and his thoughts seemingly focused far away. Nearby, Rep. Richard Gephardt stood talking to Elaine Baxter, Iowa's secretary of state. Earlier in the day, at the conclusion of a Gephardt-Dukakis debate in Des Moines, Baxter had ended her status as the last uncommitted statewide elected official by endorsing Dukakis.
Now she stood, a middle-aged woman holding the string of a Dukakis balloon, talking with the young congressman with whom she had made innumerable campaign appearances last year as they both pursued their ambitions. If there was any tension in the encounter, it did not show in their facial expressions or body language.
When Sen. Paul Simon was taking his turn, it began to drizzle. He hurried through his talk, making way for Rev. Jesse Jackson. Jackson had just started when the rain hardened. ''We will return as soon as we get a break from on high,'' he said.
After 10 minutes, the rain sputtered out and the crowd -- unsated after 90 minutesof speeches by Sen. Joe Biden, Gephardt,Gore and Simon -- quickly left the foodtents and settled back on the wet seats to listen.
Jackson did not disappoint. Often this year he has read prepared speeches in a mechanical, unemotional tone. But this night he let fly in his preacher style.
His rhetoric bounced off the crowd into the clouds and the rain resumed. ''If we can survive Ronald Reagan for seven years,'' Jackson said, ''we can stand the rain for just a few minutes.'' Obedient, no one moved. Someone found an umbrella and held it over Jackson's head, keeping his impeccably pressed suit dry.
The more it rained, the more inspirational Jackson became, especially on the subject of himself, ''defying the odds, climbing the mountains.''
''If you want change, meet me,'' he cried. ''If you want challenge, meet me. If you want choice, meet me.'' And then, as he led them in chants -- ''Save the worker. Save the farmer. Save the children. Give peace a chance.'' -- the rain stopped. And so did he.
Dukakis, facing the impossible challenge of following Jackson, asked, ''Do you really want another speech?'' When the conscientious Iowans shouted ''Yes,'' he said, ''I can't believe it.'' But he gave it, and they seemed to like him too. That night, the Iowans were determined no one would lose -- and no one did. If there was a winner, democracy was its name.