The process that began in Iowa the night of Jan. 21 is almost complete, and the final results are no different from the first early returns -- President Carter maintains his commanding lead over Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) for the Democratic presidential nomination.
In the two weeks since the final round of presidential primaries June 3, states such as Iowa, which choose their national convention delegates by the more drawn-out caucus process beginning at the precinct level and generally ending with a state convention, have been the lone remaining battleground between the Carter and Kennedy forces.
But not many battles have been fought and not many minds have been changed as the process has slowly ground along toward its conclusion.
In Iowa, for example, the results of the Jan. 21 precinct caucuses showed the president winning 59 percent of the delegates chosen to go on to county conventions in March, while Kennedy had 31 percent and 10 percent were uncommitted.
Last weekend, Iowa concluded the selection of its 50 delegates to the national convention and the results were about the same. Carter ended up with 31 delegates, or 62 percent of the total, Kennedy had 17 delegates, or 34 percent of the total, while only two delegates, or 4 percent of the total, remained uncommitted.
The same was true in Delaware, where the president won 60 percent of the delegates in the first step, congressional district conventions in March, and ended up two months later with 10 of the state's 14 national convention delegates, more than 70 percent of the total.
And in Colorado last weekend, Carter won 19 national convention delegates to Kennedy's 13, almost precisely as projected after the results of the state's precinct caucuses in May.
"If you are looking for massive slippage in these caucus states, it just isn't there," said Tom Donilon, whose job it is to keep track of every delegate for the president's re-election campaign committee.
According to Donilon, while there have been shifts of a new delegates one way or the other in a number of the caucus states, most of this has been the result of local factors far removed from any trends involving the Carter and Kennedy candidacies.
Of the 21 states that choose Democratic convention delegates by the caucus method, only Texas and Utah have not completed the process. When all of the national convention delegates are picked, Donilon predicts, there is likely to be a net gain for the president over the first projections from the results at the precinct level.
Moreover, there is little evidence that the Kennedy campaign mounted a serious effort to pick up additional delegates in the caucus states.
"There has been no effort in any of these states by the national Kennedy people," Donilon said.
Kennedy campaign officials say they have had field workers in a number of the caucus states. But it has been a low-visibility operation, a far cry from the situation four years ago when the Republican primary results left President Ford and challenger Ronald Reagan locked in an extremely close race for the GOP nomination.
Then, political operatives for the two men fanned out across the country, to state conventions such as the ones held last weekend in Iowa and Colorado, in search of an extra delegate or two.
Kennedy, however, needs far more than a handful of delegates picked up at state conventions to emerge as the winner at the Democratic National Convention in New York in August. Wary of being accused of attempting to undermine the presidential selection process, the Kennedy campaign has been relatively inactive, hoping that the kind of huge revolt against Carter that Kennedy would need will erupt from natural causes.
"Anything that happens has to come from the Carter delegates," said Rick Stearns, Donilon's counterpart in the Kennedy campaign. "We can't force it."
While Stearns hopes for a revolt, the Carter campaign in leaving nothing to chance. In addition to an elaborate system to keep track of the pledged Carter delegates, telephone calls are now going out from the White House to Kennedy supporters, urging that they switch allegiance.
According to Jim Flug of the Kennedy campaign, this request has been made personally in recent days by the president to Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Thomas P. O'Neill III and Maine Gov. Joseph Brennan, and by Vice President Mondale to Rep. Toby Moffett (D-Conn.). b