DES MOINES, Iowa -- The Iowa straw poll of 1996 Republican presidential prospects won by Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole here last weekend only tells us what we already knew: Dole, from neighboring Kansas, remains well-liked here and would be the favorite to win the Iowa caucuses if they were held now instead of about 20 months from now, in February of 1996.
In receiving 356 of 1,349 votes cast at an event he did not attend, Dole fell back on the party support that helped him beat George Bush in the 1988 Iowa caucuses.
Others among the seven Republicans on the straw ballot who did attend will no doubt join Iowa Republican Chairman Richard Schwarm in saying that Dole's failure to get more than about 25 percent of the vote means that the race is wide open in Iowa.
What the straw poll results mean, in fact, is that maybe it's wide open and maybe it's not.
In other words, the whole straw poll exercise -- 23 names were on the ballot -- means very little at all taken from such a small and select sample of Iowa Republicans so very far in advance of the real contest.
The motivation for conducting the poll was obvious -- to draw "name" Republicans to Iowa and with them national news media coverage, and to fatten the state party's thin coffers, to the tune of $35,000 to $40,000, according to Schwarm.
The party has just been through a debilitating gubernatorial primary in which Gov. Terry E. Branstad, seeking a fourth four-year term, narrowly staved off a challenge from Rep. Fred Grandy.
Now the governor faces what will probably be a costly challenge from the Democratic state attorney general, Bonnie Campbell, in November. Money is also needed in the GOP's effort to control the state legislature.
The seven Republicans who took the bait to come here had little to lose, and those who fared relatively well behind Dole will claim to have positioned themselves advantageously in the early pecking order.
Former Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee ran second with 205 votes, and Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas was third with 200 -- a finish that didn't stop him from saying that he had "triumphed." Go figure.
Three of the other five who showed up -- former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney (130 votes), news commentator Pat Buchanan (69) and former Labor Secretary Lynn Martin (20) -- all have hinted they may run, so their attendance was no surprise.
But the remaining two, Sen. Ar- len Specter of Pennsylvania (6 votes) and former Gov. Tom Kean of New Jersey (2), have not been regarded as prospects in 1996. Kean, in fact, denied that he was even considering a '96 race.
Their remarks made clear that they are concerned about the growing influence -- and, as they see it, intolerance -- of the Christian "far right" of the GOP in many states, including Iowa.
Specter warned that those who practice what he called "the politics of exclusion" undermine the unity that the party needs if it is to beat President Clinton in 1996.
Some in the audience booed Specter, but others applauded him politely in this state known for political courtesy, as far as it exists anywhere these days.
The presence of Specter and Kean carrying a message relating more to party divisions and the need for unity than to their own political aspirations underscores how such relatively meaningless events as this straw poll can be a forum for raising important party concerns.
Maybe Specter and Kean would have come to Des Moines if there had been no news coverage broadcast around the country.
But it is more likely that they saw the straw poll event as an opportunity to get their message to an audience much broader than the estimated 1,400 or so Iowa party faithful who came to the convention to hear the seven notable Republicans speak the other night.
This early in the 1996 political cycle, even before the 1994 midterm elections, there aren't that many national forums for politicians beyond the television talk shows, which are not the best vehicles for a politician to make his case on an issue in depth and without interruption.
So those who believe that they have something important to say beyond expressing their own lust for the White House cannot be blamed if they decide to piggyback on such opportunities as a handy, televised, heavily reported straw poll in Iowa.