Florida straw vote: a meaningless exercise fraught with political significance

November 15, 1995|By Jack Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- The Florida straw vote just ahead is both a totally meaningless and a potentially determinative political exercise. Only in politics is such an anomaly possible.

On the one hand, the poll of the 3,400 Republicans who will gather at Orlando has absolutely nothing to do with the choice of Florida's delegates to the national convention next year. They will be chosen in a primary in March.

But the result could be significant because leading contenders for the nomination have chosen to make it the vehicle for establishing a pecking order among the candidates that should endure at least until the first delegate selection begins in Louisiana in February.

Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas and former Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee have invested heavily of both time and treasure in trying to win votes at Orlando. And commentator Patrick J. Buchanan has made at least a strong pass at winning some votes.

The result is that Republican professionals here and activists in places like New Hampshire, where the first primary is scheduled February 20, will be looking for answers to two questions.

The first is whether the front-running Senator Dole is slipping as so many polls seem to indicate. He needs to win and probably to win impressively to wet down the speculation fed by recent opinion polls that he is a flawed candidate to oppose President Clinton next year.

And the second is whether someone else -- Messrs. Gramm or Alexander are the likely possibilities -- can break out of the pack of nine Republican also-rans and establish himself at least in the press and political community as the principal rival to Senator Dole.

The Dole advantage

Mr. Dole goes into the straw poll with something of a built-in advantage. About 800 of the 3,400 Republicans who will vote are party officials, officeholders, big contributors or delegates chosen by those party leaders. Given the senator's broad support among officeholders, he probably can count on the lion's share of these votes.

But the other 2,600 voters -- chosen by lot from among 11,000 Republicans who applied to be delegates -- are a mystery. Campaign strategists for Messrs. Dole, Gramm and Alexander all report that most of these delegates are describing themselves as undecided while enjoying the attention they are getting from all the campaigns -- personal appearances by the candidates at breakfasts, lunches and dinners, a flood of mail and telephone calls, little gifts to win their favor.

The conventional wisdom holds that Senator Dole should win, if only because he enjoys that better base and is established nationally as the front-runner. Should he lose, the questions about his viability for the long haul obviously would carry more weight.

The operative question may be whether either Mr. Alexander or Senator Gramm can do well enough to juxtapose himself as a the prime rival to Mr. Dole. Even if that happens, there is no assurance that primary voters in New Hampshire three months from now will pay any attention to what happens at Orlando. If political history is any guide, most of the 175,000 Republicans expected to vote in that primary won't make their decisions until the final two or three weeks of the campaign.

Raised expectations

The danger for both Senator Gramm and Mr. Alexander in Florida is that they have raised expectations for themselves high enough so that a poor showing in the straw vote would have an inordinate influence on their stature. If, for example, Mr. Alexander were to make a weak showing in Orlando, he unquestionably would find it more difficult to raise money the rest of the year.

The one thing that does seem clear is that the five or six candidates who have not competed in Florida have assigned themselves to a second or third tier of competitors for the nomination.

If all this seems insubstantial to most of us, it is because it is just that. Many Americans complain about the weight given to the New Hampshire primary because it is such a small state and has such a homogeneous population of middle-class white voters. Now Republican strategists are saying that the verdict of 3,400 ''delegates'' at an ersatz convention in Florida should be taken seriously.

But politics is often about atmospherics. Senator Dole suffered a setback last summer when Mr. Gramm tied him in an Iowa straw poll that was only a test of who could buy the most tickets to a dinner. Now he has a chance to recover on the strength of another tiny universe of Republican voters. It may not be logical

but it's the way the game is played

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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