Who is Iowa's real winner? GOP muddle: Dole so-so, Forbes & Gramm losers, Buchanan & Alexander Big Mo.

February 14, 1996

RESULTS FROM the Iowa Republican caucus are in and the big winner is . . . BILL CLINTON. The incumbent president has the rare privilege of running for re-election free of any challenge from within his own party. And so he could watch as would-be Republican challengers engaged in a vituperative free-for-all that hardly improves GOP chances in the November elections.

In the grand Iowa tradition, No. 2 and No. 3 came out ahead of No. 1 in the perception game. As they plunge into New Hampshire's primary battle, the momentum -- what George Bush called the "Big Mo" -- belongs not to Iowa front-runner Kansas Sen. Bob Dole but to TV commentator Pat Buchanan and former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander.

Left behind in fourth, a robotic smile on his face but with money bags chock full, was multi-millionaire Steve Forbes. He turned voters off with a fusillade of attack ads breaking the Reagan eleventh commandment that thou shalt not speak unkindly of other Republicans. Biggest losers were Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, taking his second drubbing in a week, and Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar, who said "Republicans are poisoning the well of American politics."

The Republican dilemma was most sharply etched in the strength of the Christian Right. Mr. Buchanan's 23 percent, combined with Maryland talk-show host Alan Keyes' 7 percent, amounted to a 30 percent total, topping Mr. Dole's disappointing 26 percent. Given the nature of the Iowa caucus operation, with only the most zealous voters willing to attend, these figures probably exaggerate the strength of the social conservative right-wing in the GOP. But with Mr. Buchanan leading the charge, they could be as divisive a force as they were when the 1992 Republican National Convention set the stage for President Bush's defeat.

Exit polls indicated that Mr. Alexander drew most of his votes from moderates while Mr. Buchanan captured huge majorities among the very conservative. This left Mr. Dole with the widest cross-party appeal -- a usually enviable perch subject, however, to a pincer movement from left and right. The Senate majority leader talks of "victory after victory after victory." But the stark truth is that he is in a situation where he can't afford to lose in New Hampshire next week or in most subsequent primaries.

As for President Clinton, he rubbed it in by appearing at wildly enthusiastic Democratic rallies on the eve of the Iowa caucus voting. With opinion polls showing him ahead of every Republican candidate now in the field, he is clearly the man to beat.

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