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Iowa caucuses serve a purpose

They just don't make Iowa caucuses like they used to.

Usually, the months leading up to the caucuses in Iowa are heavily saturated with presidential hopefuls crisscrossing the state, looking for chances for photo ops and sound bites that will catch the fancy of voters across the nation. It's a place where you don't even have to win to boost your campaign, just do better than the handicappers predict. It's also the place where teetering campaigns go to die.

But this year's caucuses have drawn a much more ho-hum reaction from both candidates and potential caucusers.

With President Obama unchallenged on his way to renomination as the Democratic candidate, the drama is all on the Republican side, where no candidate can seem to separate from the pack. If we were Vegas oddsmakers, we'd figure former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney will eventually emerge atop the GOP ticket with a heavily conservative leaning running mate. But Romney, for whatever reason, hasn't captivated the imagination of Republican voters who seem intent on flirting with every other announced GOP candidate before asking Romney to take them to the big dance in November. Ron Paul, who is moving up the polls, is the latest to have his dance card marked up after Newt Gingrich, who ironically made his final campaign appearance Sunday in Waterloo, looked to be the potential winner in Iowa just a month ago.

Not that any candidate should necessarily fret if he or she loses. John McCain, the 2008 GOP nominee, finished fourth in the Iowa caucuses that year, well behind front-runner-turned-TV-commentator Mike Huckabee. Bill Clinton in 1992, the year he unseated George H.W. Bush, came in fourth among Democrats in Iowa, with "uncommitted" finishing in second place. Back in 1976, eventual Democratic nominee and president Jimmy Carter came in second -- to uncommitted.

The fact is that Iowa's caucuses have more status than they deserve in influencing presidential elections. The one thing they did accomplish was forcing candidates to campaign the old-fashioned way -- in person and in smaller-than-usual settings.

This campaign season, however, is going by the wayside as GOP candidates have utilized social media and cut back dramatically on actual visits to the state. They've also been more selective in their spending since, with no candidate polling more than a quarter of the caucus-goers' support, they realize that they only have to not stub their toes in Iowa to live to campaign another day in another state. The only casualties are likely to be candidates who are having a hard time gaining any traction, such as Michele Bachman and cash-strapped Rick Santorum.

Though the Iowa caucuses are losing the unique character and the influence they have enjoyed, they serve a useful purpose -- political party containment.

The major parties' rules that penalize states that would dare to schedule primary elections before the openers of the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary this Tuesday don't so much protect tradition as they make the presidential-preference primaries manageable. Hoping for influence and an influx of money, states would likely keep moving their primaries up the calendar, spilling into the year -- or years -- before the actual election. From that standpoint, the "traditions" serve a useful purpose.

-- The Albany Herald Editorial Board