DES MOINES -- Last fall, Marc Solomon, at 26 already a veteran of one presidential campaign, asked a well-connected friend in Washington what he knew about the early jockeying for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination.

Solomon, a native of Cleveland, first came to Iowa in 1987 as a field operative in the presidential campaign of Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.). When the Simon campaign collapsed in early 1988, he returned here because he liked the state and because "in the back of my mind was 1992 and I thought this isn't a bad place to be."

Pursuing that interest, Solomon wrote to his friend, Mike McCurry, then communications director of the Democratic National Committee, on the assumption that McCurry would be privy to the latest political intelligence on the likely 1992 Democratic presidential field.

"Basically, Mike said he would keep his ears open and let me know," Solomon recalled. And what, he was asked, had he heard since then?

"Zippo," he said.

That is as good a description as any of the state of presidential campaigning here, exactly one year before the Feb. 17, 1992, Iowa precinct caucuses will set in motion the nominating process that will end with the Republican and Democratic national conventions later that year.

At this point before the 1988 election, presidential aspirants, their aides and journalists who chronicled them were crowding into Iowa. Now it is so quiet here that Iowa Democratic Chairman John Roehrick jokes about making a recording to answer the phone at party headquarters. "We have no news from Iowa," it would say.

On a recent trip to Washington, Chuck Gifford, a top official of the United Automobile Workers in the state, said he asked House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) about his plans for 1992. "He said, 'I'll call you this weekend,' but the phone didn't ring," Gifford said.

There several reasons for the sharp dropoff in presidential campaign activity here, Democratic officials and party activists say. But by far the most important is the Persian Gulf War, which has frozen the political landscape in place and probably delayed the first visible stirrings of 1992 campaign operations. Without the war, Gifford said, "you'd probably by this time have two or three {campaign} efforts. Somebody would have sent out a scouting party."

Gifford, who is bitterly critical of President Bush's war policy, complained about the "wimpish attitude" of potential Democratic candidates who are holding back in challenging Bush, but others argued that such caution is understandable.

With the saturation news coverage of developments in the gulf, Roehrick said, "it's very hard to talk about any other issue and push a message through."

"No one in his right mind would be running for president now because that's the last thing people want to hear about," said McCurry, now a political consultant in Washington.

But even without the war, the 1992 presidential campaign was certain to be much different than the 1988 contest. Four years ago, Ronald Reagan was in his last term as president and both parties were gearing up for wide-open battles to succeed him. Eventually, six Republicans and eight Democrats entered the contest. By February 1987, two of the Democrats -- Gephardt and former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt -- had opened Iowa campaign headquarters.

In contrast, only the Democrats are expected to have a battle for the 1992 nomination. Although Iowa was not kind to Bush in 1988 -- he finished third in the Republican caucuses in February and lost the state to Democratic nominee Michael S. Dukakis in November -- state GOP executive director Randy Enwright said, "In the last year and a half I have seen absolutely no indication of anyone trying to make a run at George Bush in our party."

Which Democrats will do the battling? Unlike in earlier elections, Iowa provides few clues. Among Democrats frequently mentioned as potential 1992 candidates, only Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) has visited Iowa this year. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.), the party's 1988 vice presidential candidate, was last here almost 14 months ago. New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo has never made a political trip to the state.

Moreover, when leading Democrats such as Gephardt and Bradley have visited Iowa, they have done nothing to suggest they are plotting a presidential campaign.

"When these guys come to town, nobody has set up meetings, there's been no follow up," said Solomon, now executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Commission here.

Iowa Democrats say Gephardt, the winner in the 1988 caucuses, remains the strongest of the potential 1992 candidates here. As a result of that campaign, he is well known across the state, and the organization he so carefully assembled, although dormant, remains largely intact and could be quickly activated.

But organization is not everything, as Gephardt proved in 1988. While he was one of the earliest candidates to organize the state, his campaign was dead in the water two months before the caucuses. His victory on caucus night was attributed not to painstaking, early field work but to the fact that he "got hot" at the end of the campaign with a message stressing economic nationalism. Ironically, Solomon said, "the Gephardt victory proved you don't need to be here two years to win."

Thomas Donilon, a Washington lawyer and veteran Democratic strategist, said the relatively late start in the 1992 presidential campaign could provide some advantage to well-known candidates who can raise large amounts of money quickly, among them Gephardt, Bentsen and Cuomo.

"Does that preclude an unknown from catching on?" he said. "No. The Iowa-New Hampshire structure is still there. That rocket sled potential for an unknown still exists."

Because Bush and Dukakis finished third in Iowa but went on to win their party's nomination, there was speculation after the 1988 campaign that the Iowa caucuses would be of diminished importance in 1992, with some candidates possibly skipping the contest. But Donilon argued that this is unlikely to happen.

"You still have to start where it starts," Donilon said. "You are still going to have winners and losers in Iowa and New Hampshire. It is the first time you get some real results as opposed to all the made-up stuff. I can't imagine that it won't be an important contest."

Nor can most Iowans, who have become accustomed to the quadrennial frenzy of presidential politicking that pumped an estimated $22 million into the state economy in the last campaign. Candidates may be nowhere to be seen now, Solomon said, but the state's political activists approach the delayed beginning of the 1992 presidential campaign with the faith of the fictional Iowa farmer who carved out a baseball diamond in the cornfields and waited for the appearance of Shoeless Joe Jackson and other members of the infamous Chicago "Black Sox."

"There's a 'Field of Dreams' kind of attitude about it," he said. "We are here. They will come."