DES MOINES -- Robert Dole earned here the right to do something he does well but too rarely -- smile, broadly. By decisively defeating the Republican who in 1980 won the Iowa caucuses, Dole raised the issue of George Bush's electability and freed himself to make his issues and his political character the focus of the campaign's next phase.
On the Democratic side, Iowa's party decided not to decide. Instead, it produced results that reflect three tendencies that are in tension.
For many months, Dole has needed help that was not forthcoming from the Democrats. He has needed the Democrats to get their act together sufficiently to generate polls that demonstrate what indirect data indicate: that he is more electable than Bush. (For example, Dole has higher ''favorable'' ratings than Bush has among Democrats.)
Now someone who will not be nominated, Pat Robertson, has done Dole the service of producing Iowa results that are evidence, at once redundant and stunning, that Bush is an unconvincing candidate for elective office. (Robertson also has stymied Jack Kemp's New Hampshire surge by muddying Kemp's message -- that Kemp is the sole ''real'' conservative alternative to Dole or Bush.)
Confusion and ''dwarfism'' on the Democratic side have allowed many Republicans to believe that either Dole or Bush is a certain winner in November. Now Democratic confusion will diminish and the surviving candidates will not seem so small, and polls will show that no Republican looks unbeatable, least of all the incumbent vice president, who spent 38 days and $700,000 in Iowa and was rejected by 81 percent of Republican voters.
Traveling with all the trappings of an office that is all trappings, Bush has run a semi-incumbent's campaign, stressing a bland, safe issue, education, that is essentially a responsibility of local governments. Now Dole will be running as a semi-president, stressing his role as the president's point man on ratification of the INF Treaty and running to the right of Bush by stressing linkage of START talks to changes in Soviet behavior.
On the Democratic side, three facts found expression in three candidates. There are, says social researcher Daniel Yankelovich, three new facts of American politics.
The first is that we have ''a politics of values, not issues.'' He means that voters define issues in terms of candidates' articulations of fundamental values. Carter perfected it, emphasizing post-Watergate ''honesty''; Reagan continued it, promising post-Carter ''strength.'' Paul Simon, with his indifference to arithmetic and his incantations about ''caring,'' is a pure ''values'' candidate.
His resonant radio-era voice (his larynx, like his legislative proposals, makes him an ideal 1930s candidate) will never be heard from an inauguration platform. But Iowa's Democratic Party suffers no shortage of sentimentality. Many activists prefer Simon to Michael Dukakis, who, in spite of a recent passion transplant, resembles the woman of whom it was said, ''She has no heart, but her brains are in the right place.''
Dukakis fits Yankelovich's second fact: that ''perhaps for the first time since the 1920s the country is tilting neither to the right nor to the left.'' The Depression produced liberalism, which lasted into the late 1960s. Liberalism produced intrusive government and inflation, which produced two decades of conservatism. Dukakis is a candidate for a nonideological climate.
Actually, his foreign policy is pristine McGovernism, and his domestic policy offends no liberal interest. But his best Iowa ad stressed competence -- the skills America ''just might need.'' Skills, not Simon's ''caring.''
Yankelovich's third fact is the pervasive sense of foreign challenge, economic even more than political and military. Dick ''Say It With Lightning Bolts'' Gephardt has crystallized anxiety about this challenge by promising to be beastly to South Korea. Being tough toward America's sinning allies (the Philippines, Chile, South Africa, Somoza's Nicaragua) is a modern Democratic tradition. But Gephardt also is voicing something that always helps in American politics and has not recently been heard from Democrats -- nationalism.
Now it is on to New Hampshire. The indecisiveness of Iowa's Democratic decision sets up a long, expensive, divisive struggle through the spring. Dole's victory may set up a New Hampshire bounce over Bush.
Dole's campaign worried that because the media expected him to win Iowa, his victory would be discounted by ''everybody'' and he would not benefit in New Hampshire. But the night before the caucuses, Dole received a cheering bit of poll data: only 23 percent of New Hampshire voters expected Bush to lose Iowa. When politicians and journalists are packed together, as they have been here, as tightly as pickles in a jar, they can easily come to underestimate how inattentive most Americans are, most of the time, to the events that preoccupy politicians and journalists.