Trying for at least the expected Running: At this stage of the presidential campaign, how the Republican candidates are expected to perform in the race has the greatest importance.

Sun Journal

Campaign 1996

February 05, 1996|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

DES MOINES, IWOA — DES MOINES, Iowa -- Ask Phil Gramm for his position on any issue. Odds are he'll give a straight answer. But inquire about his prospects in the Iowa caucuses, one week from tonight, and he becomes squirrelly.

"I think I have to do well here," he cautiously told a Des Moines TV interviewer the other evening. When pressed to say whether that means he must finish ahead of newcomer Steve Forbes, he ducked.

The attempt to pin down Mr. Gramm, and the senator's slipperiness, are tiny turns in a minuet; in fact, they are what the presidential campaign is all about right now. It's the Expectations Game, and how it turns out will help determine who becomes the Republican nominee.

As everyone knows, failure to meet Expectations can damage, even destroy, a candidate; meeting or exceeding Expectations imparts priceless Momentum (which is why savvy campaigners, in making predictions, try to understate their chances).

There are Expectations, and the Expectations create what in a week or so becomes Conventional Wisdom. For months, the Conventional Wisdom was that Bob Dole would run away with the Republican nomination. But political veterans say they knew that would never last.

"There is a need for drama, a rise or fall, which is why the press reports candidates' poll ratings rather than their environmental speeches," says Democratic strategist Bob Shrum, who still has painful memories from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's can't-lose 1980 presidential bid. "A fall can be permanent or there can be a dramatic redemption," such as George Bush's comeback in 1988 after a third-place finish in Iowa.

Right now, Mr. Forbes is in the process of dismantling Mr. Dole's inevitability. Recent polls show the free-spending millionaire zooming into the lead in New Hampshire, the first primary state, which Mr. Dole had called a must-win for him. So a new Conventional Wisdom has taken shape, as rival candidates attempt to grapple with the Forbes factor.

"Forbes isn't going to be the president," declares Lamar Alexander, a remark echoed by many other GOP politicians.

"Why is that true?" responds Mr. Shrum. "In 1980, the Conventional Wisdom was that Reagan could not be elected. There was this crazy notion that Reagan would be a pushover."

During the current takeoff stage of the campaign, Expectations matter more than the relatively small number of convention delegates at stake in the first primaries and caucuses. While pollsters and the press try to divine what is going on in the minds of the voters, candidates and their handlers churn out scenarios designed to put a favorable spin on events before they occur, much as corporate officers try to influence Wall Street analysts who track a firm's prospects.

Indeed, Expectations are to politics what the financial markets are to the economy. Both are unpredictable and potentially volatile. This shouldn't be a surprise, since they are based on the same elusive thing, human nature.

Like the stock market, the game of expectations can be perverse. Just as AT&T's stock may soar after it lays off 30,000 workers, political bad news can sometimes be good. Consider the case of Mr. Dole, whose current campaign has all the makings of an Expectations classic.

Until Mr. Forbes emerged, the front-running Mr. Dole needed to win with roughly 40 percent of the caucus vote (he received 38 percent in his 1988 Iowa victory) to demonstrate the strength of his candidacy. Now, with his poll numbers dropping, the bar has been lowered: "Dole may not be able to punch through the 30 percent ceiling in [Iowa], which would make it awfully hard to declare victory there," reports Time magazine.

Expectations about the shape of the race also are in turmoil. The old Conventional Wisdom was that the nomination would effectively be decided by mid-March. The thinking now is that the race could go on for many more weeks, even months, if the finalists are a well-financed Senate veteran and a publishing heir with almost limitless resources.

The columnist Russell Baker recently wrote that presidential politics is ruled by a shadowy but powerful institution known as the Expectorate:

"It is said to number perhaps three to five political writers, who never meet formally, and see each other only when assembled by network panel shows for ostensibly harmless political musings on Sunday television. Here, it is said, they set the expectation figures through a series of secret handshakes and a code based on systematic blinks and strokings of the nose and (( chin."

That's actually not so far-fetched, says Doug Bailey, a Republican campaign veteran. "Twenty years or so ago, a half-dozen political reporters who sort of set the tone and were taken seriously by other reporters could define the expectations, especially if they all went one way," he says.

Today, the proliferation of polls, TV channels and computers has multiplied the number of players who mold expectations. The speed by which Conventional Wisdom spreads has increased dramatically.

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