IOWA'S PRIVILEGED position in the nation's political calendar has promoted some egregious pandering to the farm vote. In last month's Republican debate in Iowa, all candidates except Sen. John McCain fell over each other to promise federal help for farmers; Steve Forbes went so far as to blame the Federal Reserve for conspiring to undermine farm prices. Saturday's Democratic face-off was no more edifying. Al Gore bashed his opponent for opposing a range of farm supports. Bill Bradley protested that he was even more eager to cosset farms than was the vice president.

The dramatic high point of the debate came when Mr. Gore called upon a farmer in the audience to stand up, and then demanded to know why Mr. Bradley had voted against flood relief for him. Mr. Bradley seemed stuck for an answer at the time, but the next day he bounced back. "I voted for flood relief, I voted for disaster assistance. I just voted against that particular amendment," he pleaded. "You cannot have an economy booming if you can't also give family farmers some sense of security," he went on, before finally prostrating himself fully: "For the last seven years," he contended, "there's been zero help for family farmers from this administration."

The truth is that Mr. Bradley had perfectly sound reasons for voting against the amendment cited by Mr. Gore: It represented farm assistance more generous than seemed justified in a time of budget stringency. As well as standing up for his vote, Mr. Bradley could have used the debate question to reflect more broadly on relief for farms. The 1993 flood that prompted the contested amendment was a serious disaster that rightly triggered federal aid. But such aid carries the danger of encouraging farming in flood-prone areas. Neither Mr. Bradley nor Mr. Gore breathed a word of this dilemma.

Moreover, the contention that family farmers have got "zero help" strains credulity. It is true that big farms hog most of the federal subsidies for farming, but small farmers get help too. A serious discussion of this issue might raise the question of whether some small farms are economically and ecologically unviable, and whether the current strength of the broader economy should be seen as an opportunity to help some farmers shift into more productive jobs, rather than redoubling federal aid that can perpetuate dependency.

In some areas such as health care and education, Campaign 2000 has yielded good debate. It is too bad that Iowa's early caucus seems to preclude that possibility when it comes to agriculture. Perhaps, next time around, more candidates will follow the McCain example: Avoid Iowa, and so be free to condemn the excesses of federal farm policy.