"Not so long ago," in the words of Don Swanson, a man of God and politics, his local Republican Party caucus "was sorta dying out."

One year, for instance, Swanson walked through the door on caucus night, looked around, and discovered that he had just doubled the total attendance. A third person arrived a little later, and that was all. "I said, 'By God's grace, this will never happen again.' "

Monday night, across Iowa, tens of thousands of citizens will gather in living rooms and high school gyms to cast the first votes of the presidential campaign. Swanson has volunteered to host one of these gatherings. He's expecting 200 Republicans--from a total of 312 in the precinct--to drive up the dirt road to his radio station, KTFC (that's Keep Talking For Christ).

There, they will vote for their favorite presidential candidates and hash out the Republican philosophy of Concord and Banner townships, two largely rural tracts in the low hills east of Sioux City.

The local caucus--an event half block party, half town hall meeting--is a once-common, now-vanishing rite of American democracy. Over the past 40 years, primaries have become the preferred way of allocating delegates to the conventions. Amateur speeches and debates over platform planks have given way to the anonymity of a primary voting booth.

To some political theorists, this is a big step forward. Certainly it's easier to vote in a primary--polls are open all day; you stop by when it's convenient. Last week, Democrat Bill Bradley complained that the time-intensive caucuses favor "entrenched power."

Don Swanson, 81, finds this truly amazing. "It's just the democratic way of doing things," he says of his beloved caucus.

As the man said, he set out to rescue the tradition in his neighborhood by God's grace. But Swanson is not the sort of evangelical who just lifts a prayer for something and then gets it. "It's never happened that way for me," he says. He prays and then he works. This year, he and a few friends sent hand-addressed invitations to every one of those 312 Republicans.

They've outgrown the firehouse in Lawton. It will likely be standing room only at KTFC. Betty Ritchie has watched the numbers rise; this will be her fourth caucus. "Maybe we're more concerned Americans," she says by way of explanation. "I would hope for that."

Swanson, meanwhile, gives a lot of the credit to Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, in very different ways. Reagan's popularity out here on the prairie eroded half a century of loyalty to the Democrats--"Roosevelt gave the Democrats a real toehold around here by giving out farm subsidies," he says. As for the feelings that lingered, well, "Clinton cured 'em of that."

So what exactly is a caucus? Former student body presidents and parliamentarians from the Future Farmers of America will know instinctively. For others, the process can be arcane--most campaigns send instruction sheets to potential supporters.

But here goes: Any party member is welcome to attend. As people come through the door, a registrar scans a computer list of registered Republicans and checks off each name. But you don't have to be on the list to vote--in Iowa, a Democrat or independent can change affiliation on the spot.

Swanson himself switched parties once. There was a race in which the Democrat more strongly opposed abortion than the Republican. He went to the Democratic caucus, changed his affiliation at the door, cast his vote, then switched back.

Inside the caucus, "there's a sort of carnival atmosphere," Swanson says. "It's, 'Hi, Joe!' and a lot of laughing and talking and slapping people on the back."

Refreshments--minimal. Swanson will serve orange juice. "Cookies make crumbs and coffee's too hard to keep hot." The juice-only caucus may be a trend; in nearby Sergeant's Bluff, Lu Matthey has made the same decision for the same reasons.

Promptly at 7 p.m., business begins with the election of a chairperson, a secretary and, in most cases, a recorder. In truth, these roles are generally worked out in advance. Betty Ritchie already knows she'll be the secretary at Swanson's caucus, and her husband, Darrell, will be the chairman.

Now comes the famous part. Citizens rise to nominate their preferred presidential candidates. "They'll give a little speech if they want," says Swanson--with an emphasis on little. People here are not wordy to begin with, but there's a two- or three-minute time limit, just in case.

All six Republican candidates will be nominated. Darrell Ritchie will see to that. He's ready to nominate anyone who doesn't have a supporter present, and he has been saving pamphlets from the mail to help him summarize credentials.

Voting is done by ballot. Swanson predicts that publisher Steve Forbes will win this precinct; this is very conservative country out here. Four years ago, Swanson recalls, Patrick J. Buchanan took 69 votes to runner-up Robert J. Dole's five. This time, he expects the Forbes vs. George W. Bush race to be much closer. That's the end of it, as far as the nation is concerned. But for Iowans, the caucus has only begun. While the recorder telephones results to county headquarters, everyone else will start writing the party platform.

Politics doesn't get much more grass-roots than this. Anyone with a strong view or a fervent cause can raise a hand and suggest a plank for the Iowa GOP platform.

Does widespread participation create a garden of new ideas? No. Swanson is pretty sure which issues will be discussed: "I can assure you school vouchers will come up. Of course abortion's gonna come up. Gun control--meaning that we're against it. It'll be conservative . . . all the way through."

The meeting ends with the selection of delegates to future gatherings--the county convention in March; the state convention in summer. At each higher level, the shared views from Swanson's caucus become smaller vessels in a larger sea.

Don Swanson would love to send some young people to the conventions. He is a man who pines for the "good old world--you know, Prohibition." But he knows you don't build a party on nostalgia alone.

He's also a big believer in the idea that you don't win with dull meetings. Matthey is expecting about 30 Republicans at her home, and budgets three hours to get through the caucus. Swanson, by contrast, wants his 200 to be finished in an hour or so. "Get in there and hit it fast, get the business out of the way and get out," is his philosophy. "If we have one of these that's dead, it will ruin us for years to come."

The whole thing is quite a bit of effort, at least by modern standards. Some people ask: for what?

Charles Solomon, for example. Swanson recruited him to attend a caucus for the first time 16 years ago. He has been discouraged from time to time.

"The caucus we had for Buchanan, boy, he was the one we wanted," Solomon says a bit wistfully. "If we vote for a certain man and nothing much happens after that--well, you wonder whether it's worth all that trouble to go through it."

Still, Solomon and his wife addressed most of Swanson's invitations this year because--while it may not be perfect--the caucus is a voice for the small and resolute against the large and tyrannical.

And if it ever dies, says Don Swanson, then "poor Paul Revere."