By subjective standards, Minnesota's Feb. 26 precinct caucuses should be every bit as important as the New Hampshire primary the same day.
Minnesota, after all, elects far more delgates (three times as many to the Democratic convention) than New Hampshire. The state is larger, more urban, more industrialized, and even colder than New Hampshire.
Furthermore, the state has been on the cutting edge of progressive government in recent decades, producing a bumper crop of national political figures including Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale and Eugene McCarthy.
By contrast, the last New Hampshire politician to make it big was Franklin Pierce, the 14th president of the United States. And he was elected in 1852.
Yet the precinct caucuses have received little national attention and one week before they meet it is hard to tell a campaign is under way.
There are no ads on television. There are few bumper stickers, and there seems to be more public interest in the New Hampshire primary here than in the Gopher State's own caucuses.
"A lot of people are going to stay home on caucus night to watch the New Hampshire returns on television," warns Tom Tripp, George Bush's Minnesota campaign manager.
"On a scale of 1 to 10, New Hampshire is a 10 and Minnesota is 0.5," he adds.
Most candidates are simply ignoring the state. And when Mondale, President Carter's most-traveled surrogate, visited last week, the Minneapolis Tribune treated it with the equivalent of a journalistic yawn.
"Minnesota newspaper editors Friday heard what has become the standard speech of Vice President Mondale . . . It was at least the sixth time in the last three weeks that Mondale has given the same speech to a Minnesota audience," said the Associated Press report carried in the paper.
There are good reasons, including New Hampshire's tradition as the nation's first primary state, for the Minnesota caucuses to receive so little attention. Among them:
Confusing Process: The caucuses resemble those in neighboring Iowa, site of the first formal test of the 1980 presidential year. They are small, neighborhood meetings held in living rooms, church basements and school houses. Only one voter in 20 is expected to attend.
The caucuses are the first step in a multitiered process that stretches into June. It is not until the third tier that any delegates are choosen.But, like Iowa, there will be a straw ballot conducted at each caucus next Tuesday.
Uncertain Results: It may be hard to tell who wins, however. The official results of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor caucuses are reported by mail. For more immediate results, the public will have to depend on precinct samplings made by various news organizations and the Carter-Mondale committee.
The Independent Republican (IR) Party, as the GOP is known here, has modeled its precinct reporting system after the one used in the Jan. 21 Iowa caucuses. The system worked poorly in Iowa, and people wonder whether it will do any better here.
The Media: "New Hampshire is getting the attention because you guys say that's where the action is," argues Bush campaign manager Tripp. "You guys are the ones who've made New Hampshire important. Look, Walter Cronkite isn't going to be here. He's going to be in New Hampshire."
Little Fireworks: "There isn't much of a fight here. The Kennedy people aren't calling us names and we're not calling them names," says Bob Meek, chief operative for the Carter-Mondale campaign in Minnesota. "It's hard to get good fight coverage when there's no good fight."
Last spring when Carter's popularity was at rock bottom some Minnesotans felt they could deal the president, who has never been particularly popular here, a serious embarrassment in his vice president's backyard. Chief among them was Rep. Richard M. Nolan (D-Minn.). At considerable political rish he convened a highly publicized draft-Kennedy meeting at the University of Minnesota.
Today those hopes are all but gone. Nolan has announced he will not run for reelection. Mondale has rallied almost the entire leadership of the DFL, left in disarray after a series of devastating defeats in 1978, around the president. And Kennedy is hardly a factor in the state.
His headquarters in downtown Minneapolis looked like a morgue Saturday afternoon. "There is a lot of support for the Carter-Mondale ticket here," said Liz McPike, who heads the Kennedy effort. "The vice president is simply very popular in his home state."
The biggest threat to the Carter-Mondale ticket is a series of uncommitted slates, led by labor leaders and feminists. Historically, such slates have fared well in the caucus process.
In addition, the DFL has shown a striking independence even when dealing with its favorite sons. In 1976, for example, Humphrey, then hoping to be drafted as a nominee, received only 30 percent of the straw ballot on precinct caucus night. Thirty percent voted no preference; 20 percent voted for uncommitted slates.
Mondale has visited the state four times in the last month and plans to return tomorrow. "I'm not taking anything for granted," he said last week.
On the Republican side, Regan was the early front-runner. His supporters occupy much of the party structure, and he has the assistance of highly effective antiabortion groups in the state.
John B. Connally posed the early threat to Reagan, by makin a successfuf effort to recruit support among business and party leaders.The former Texas governor has hired state Sen. Nancy Brataas, a nationally known phone bank expert, to work for him, and has spent more money in Minnesota than any Republican.
But George Bush is expected to provide Reagan's stiffest competition. His state chairman is Rep. Bill Frenzel, a popular congressman from suburban Minneapolis, and he is expected to do well in urban areas which traditionally draw the most caucus-goers. Bush and Connally have scheduled brief campaign trips to the state this week.