FORT DODGE, IOWA, JAN. 13 -- Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) held a news conference in the middle of a blizzard outside an abandoned meat-packing plant here the other day. It was a political advance teams' dream: a perfect, made-for-TV visual, showing the bareheaded candidate braving 40 mph winds, subzero temperatures and swirling snow to speak his piece.
Not a single television camera showed up to record the event.
This is not unusual for Simon, who only a few weeks ago was the hottest ticket in the Democratic presidential race in this critical state.
During the weeks since former Colorado senator Gary Hart's reentry into the Democratic sweepstakes, Simon has simply lost the cachet that goes with being the Iowa front-runner. The television cameras have gone elsewhere.
"There's no question it has temporarily hurt me in Iowa," Simon said in an interview.
"All of a sudden, I moved into the No. 2 position. My instinct is that it is a temporary thing, but it has slowed us down."
Just how much Simon has slowed is debatable.
The Illinois Democrat remains the candidate to beat in the Feb. 8 Iowa precinct caucuses, despite polls taken immediately after Hart's reentry that indicated as much as half Simon's support had evaporated overnight.
A more recent CBS News/New York Times poll showed Simon leading Hart and the rest of the field among Democrats most likely to attend the caucus.
Polling for the Simon campaign this week indicated that the Iowa race has virtually returned to where it stood in late November, when Simon held a double-digit lead over his two closest rivals here, Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.).
Meanwhile, Simon's fortunes are improving dramatically in New Hampshire, which holds the nation's first primary a week after the Iowa caucuses. Dukakis has long been considered the front-runner in the Granite State. But Simon appears to be moving into a position to emerge as the chief alternative to Dukakis if he wins here.
A Gallup poll this week showed 39 percent of voters supported Dukakis, 19 percent Hart and 12 percent Simon.
Simon's polls taken earlier this week show him in second place in the state, leading Hart. Some Simon leaders in the state have become so enthusiastic that the candidate has had to advise them against being too optimistic.
Privately, Simon strategists said they think Hart is a blessing in disguise.
They argue that Hart's reentry lowered unrealistically high expectations for Simon in Iowa, and diverted criticism from him. "He took the heat off us," said one Simon adviser. "We needed time for our organization to catch up with the popularity of our candidate."
In the minds of some Simon advisors, a near perfect scenario has Hart finishing second to Simon here. This would give Simon a big boost while raising questions about Dukakis' electability and all but eliminating Gephardt and former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt from the race.
But Simon has lost a powerful psychological force. He is no longer the "hot" candidate here.
"Hart took all the momentum away from Simon," said Steve Murphy, Iowa coordinator for Gephardt. "Hart is the new 'phenom,' the flavor of the month."
Simon forces dispute this, but acknowledge that Hart has muddled the race. "Gary Hart has frozen the political landscape," said Simon campaign manager Brian Lunde. "Everyone has basically stayed where they were in late November. Now the question is what happens when it thaws."
Simon the campaigner seems to have cooled off in recent Iowa appearances. He gave lackluster speeches before large midday audiences this week in Des Moines and Jefferson, for example, receiving more applause when he began his speech than when he finished.
Simon found himself repeatedly on the defensive on budget issues during a four-candidate debate Monday night in Sioux City.
What polls of the last month seem to be saying is that Simon has a solid base in the state, but the race remains extremely fluid. In short, it is his to lose here.
Simon, once the darkest of dark horses, looked as if he were riding a skyrocket through Iowa during November and early December. He surged ahead in polls, drew impressive crowds and patched together a respectable campaign organization.
As others stumbled, Simon lived almost a charmed life. Unlike his opponents, Simon based his appeal on his personality and character rather than issues or his record.
He did this with a wave of television advertisements, direct mail and telephone calls in late October and November. Every likely Democratic caucus goer was sent four different pieces of mail.
Simon's Iowa campaign organization, however, lagged behind those of Dukakis, Gephardt and Babbitt, in the opinion of most experts, before this began to change, slowly and week by week.
Staff writer David S. Broder contributed to this report from New Hampshire.