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What Mushroom Cloud?

In this Reality Check, CBS News Correspondent Eric Engberg dips his journalistic toe into Iowa's political waters and discovers that voters don't seem worried about whose finger is on the nuclear button.



The Iowans who gathered around the big table in Crouse's Coffee Shop in Indianola were finishing up breakfast and talking about the problems of the Chicago Cubs and other important matters.

The famed Iowa caucuses - supposedly an obsession among the state's hardy people - didn't come up until the out-of-town reporter intruded on their discussion. Being notoriously polite Iowans, they did not mind and slipped easily into a discussion of the presidential campaign.

Mike Shield, a schoolteacher, was the only one of the six who had been to a campaign event, and even he wasn't excited by any of the candidates in either party. "You know," he said, "the four front-runners have each got some good things about them. You wish you could take a piece of each man and build yourself a presidential candidate out of their best ideas."

So it's come to that, has it. Instead of fancying a steel-cage match in which the contenders pound each other until the victor emerges, the typical voter wants McBradGorBush, a gruel without a singular distinctive flavor. Hard-edged philosophical stances are simply not selling this year, at least not here in the heartland state that speaks first.

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Remember, Iowa was the state where televangelist Pat Robertson shocked the political establishment in 1988 by finishing ahead of Bush the Elder on the strength of a powerful turnout by the Christian right. Most of that segment of the Republican electorate, according to Iowa political observers, appears headed to Bush the W this year. His debate declaration of faith in Jesus may have helped cement that support, but it's not the main reason.

The main reason, according to Hugh Winebrenner, the political scientist from Drake University who is the semi-official historian of the caucuses, is that the Christian conservatives want a winner.

Many who entered politics in the Robertson year stuck around to play the game on a regular basis. They occupy positions within the state GOP hierarchy. They realize that single-issue politics has strict limitations. Opposition to abortion rights and support for prayer in the public schools remain important to them, but they care about economic issues as wll. Many have made a conscious decision to mute their attitudes on the social issues to make it easier for a Republican to win the White House.

Result: Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes are almost sure to be very disappointed by what happens caucus night.

What my encounter with the Iowa folks in the coffee shop, and their lack of fire for any of the candidates, also demonstrated is that this is going to be an emotionally flat year in the presidential race. And it's not just the candidates, a group that could benefit from a course in Remedial Oratory.

The country is feeling much too good to allow for a genuine knockdown, drag-out campaign donnybrook. Those upbeat guys on the USA Today copy desk branded it the "Feelgood Election" a couple of days ago. The poll numbers they reported, showing unprecedented confidence in the nation's future and voters' individual economic situations, say a lot about the torpor in the Iowa coffee shops.

But one senses deeper forces at work. Even the media - people who choose to be in constant contact with politicians - lack the bloodlust of earlier campaigns. This dawned on me, as many things do, while sitting in a bar with some press colleagues. Earlier presidential campaigns dating from 1948 generated black-hole quantities of energy simply because the man we were electing might one day have to push The Button.

In 1984, ex-vice president Mondale, reeling from primary defeats at the hands of the younger, cooler Gary Hart, saved the nomination by televising a stark ad that showed a red telephone, symbolic of the president's power to send the nuclear weapons on their way. The message was that America couldn't trust someone as untested and quirky as Hart with the power of Armageddon.

Not only would the red phone ad not work this year, most younger voters would not understand the concept of a president turning large chunks of the planet into cinderland. The end of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War have forever altered the terms of presidential campaigning. Voters don't begin their analysis by judging a candidate's capacity to make the ultimate life and death decision.

And sometimes they can't even be bothered to think about the candidates at all.

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