Campaign in Iowa takes one last nasty turn Forbes accuses Dole of using smear tactics

Campaign 1996

February 11, 1996|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF Sun Staff writer Susan Baer contributed to this article.

INDIANOLA, Iowa -- Amid signs that Sen. Bob Dole has held off a stiff challenge from his presidential rivals, an unusually nasty Iowa caucus campaign is nearing an end today.

There were fresh charges of dirty politics yesterday as the Republican candidates wooed a large bloc of undecided voters. Newcomer Steve Forbes, whose support appears to be slipping in this state, accused the Dole campaign of using smear tactics against him.

"Senator Dole and others [are] absolutely distorting, smearing me," Mr. Forbes told reporters at a campaign stop in Mason City. "They're doing it as we speak. That's how low they've sunk."

Mr. Forbes said the Dole campaign had been anonymously phoning voters in Iowa and other states, making false claims about his positions on Social Security, abortion and gays in the military. Mr. Dole, who has publicly attacked Mr. Forbes' positions on those issues in the bitter TV ad wars raging in Iowa, denied the charge.

At a rally on a farm near Indianola, Mr. Dole, calling himself "pumped up," tried to strike a positive note.

"It is not Bob Dole vs. the other candidates," he said. "It is about experience and leadership."

A new public opinion poll, released yesterday, showed that Mr. Dole is gradually pulling away from the pack of nine candidates competing in tomorrow night's caucuses.

In a surprise, conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan appears to be surging and could overtake Mr. Forbes for second place, according to the poll by the Des Moines Register.

Among Republicans who said they were likely to attend a caucus, Mr. Dole was the choice of 28 percent, followed by Mr. Forbes, 16 percent; and Mr. Buchanan, 11 percent. Former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander drew 10 percent; Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, 8 percent; and former Senate candidate and radio talk show host Alan L. Keyes of Maryland, 4 percent.

The Iowa caucuses, the first major test of the presidential campaign, have a history of influencing nomination contests by weeding out also-rans and boosting the chances of the top two or three finishers. It was in Iowa, in 1980, that George Bush emerged as the top challenger to Ronald Reagan; in 1988, a second-place finish by television evangelist Pat Robertson signaled the arrival of religious conservatives as a force in the GOP primary process.

Republican leaders call this year's campaign the ugliest they've seen. And Iowans say all the name-calling and finger-pointing have turned them off.

Undecided vote gets boost

One unusual result: The undecided vote has gone up, instead of down. The Register poll found that almost one in five likely caucus-goers has yet to pick a candidate.

Mr. Forbes, whose late-starting campaign lacks the organizational depth thought to be crucial in caucus contests, has far outspent everyone else on TV ads. An equal-opportunity attacker, Mr. Forbes has used the ads to hurl the words "Washington politician" as an epithet against Mr. Dole, Mr. Alexander and Mr. Gramm, whose presidential hopes appear to be dying.

Gov. Terry E. Branstad estimated last week that Mr. Forbes, a wealthy publisher, had spent more on his Iowa campaign than Mr. Branstad did in his four statewide runs for office combined.

The unprecedented level of TV and radio advertising has all but overwhelmed the old-fashioned, grass-roots organizing and in-person politicking that used to set Iowa apart.

All the major contenders -- and even minor ones, such as Mr. Keyes -- have been running negative commercials. The lone holdout from the mudslinging, Indiana Sen. Richard G. Lugar, has put on ads urging disgusted voters to "take a stab against negative campaigns" by backing him; the latest polls show him near the bottom of the pack, with 2 percent support.

'Unusual in Iowa'

"It's so unusual in Iowa for the caucuses to have such negative advertising," says University of Iowa political scientist Arthur Miller.

In the past, "when they have been negative, they haven't been negative against other candidates," he said, citing a hard-hitting trade ad by 1988 Democratic hopeful Rep. Richard A. Gephardt that condemned the lack of a level playing field for U.S. workers.

What impact these attacks will have on the choice of the Republican nominee should begin to become clear tomorrow night.

But already evident is that many of the assumptions about the campaign -- how it would be conducted and who the main players would be -- have to be recalibrated:

* Mr. Dole's march to the nomination looks somewhat less certain, with polls showing him in a close race with Mr. Forbes in New Hampshire, which holds the first presidential primary next week.

* The restive nature of the Republican electorate, even in a prosperous state such as Iowa, is reflected in the support for the angry, anti-Washington messages of Mr. Forbes, Mr. Buchanan,

Mr. Keyes and, to a certain degree, Mr. Alexander.

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