Dole's narrow escape in Iowa turns up the heat in New Hampshire CAMPAIGN 1996

February 14, 1996|By JULES WITCOVER & JACK GERMOND

DES MOINES, Iowa -- Sen. Bob Dole's narrow escape from the Iowa precinct caucuses, where he won only 26 percent of the vote to Pat Buchanan's 23, puts considerable heat on him in next Tuesday's New Hampshire primary.

Eight years ago, he won 37 percent of the Iowa caucus vote in beating then Vice President George Bush. He may have to spend more time than he wants in New Hampshire trying to explain why he didn't do better.

Shattered in Iowa was any lingering sense that Mr. Dole's nomination is inevitable. He must quickly reinforce his front-running position against the charge of the two winners of the expectations game in Iowa, Mr. Buchanan and the surprise third-place finisher, Lamar Alexander.

As the two candidates who exceeded expectations here, they will reap the benefit of the media spotlight. Both had trailed Steve Forbes in the final Des Moines Register poll, but easily beat him, Mr. Alexander with 18 percent to Mr. Forbes' dismal 10, one point ahead of the other collapsing candidate, Sen. Phil ++ Gramm, who got only 9.

Mr. Forbes with all his millions and his willingness to spend them will try to restore his early luster. But the abandon with which he bought television and radio time to slash Messrs. Dole, Gramm and Alexander apparently didn't sit well with Iowa voters, who pride themselves in practicing wholesome politics. More of the same in New Hampshire may well backfire on Mr. Forbes there, too.

It is notable that in Iowa, while Senators Dole and Gramm answered Mr. Forbes in kind over the airwaves, Mr. Buchanan ran a largely positive campaign and Mr. Alexander bragged about doing so -- while calling Messrs. Forbes and Dole $l ''mudslingers'' and displaying a pair of high boots on occasion. Messrs. Buchanan and Alexander appeared to benefit from at least the appearance of taking the high road.

Mr. Buchanan, in fact, who has the reputation of being a tough political street brawler, was essentially a coat-holder for the other scrappers in Iowa and came out unscathed while they nursed their wounds. He claimed that Mr. Forbes' negative ads softened up Senator Dole for him, and at the same time he escaped attacks from the other candidates. The reason, he said, was that his conservative supporters, especially anti-abortion voters, were so committed to him that Messrs. Forbes and Dole probably decided it would be a waste of time to try to discredit Mr. Buchanan in their eyes.

Low turnout

Another indication that Iowa voters were turned off by the battle of negative ads was a turnout of only about 96,000, well below the 135,000 that Iowa Republican Party chairman Brian Kennedy had predicted. The light turnout may have helped Mr. Buchanan, in light of the zeal of his supporters.

One of the ironies of Mr. Alexander's surprise showing was that after a successful political career as a moderate Republican, he labored for most of the last year to be seen as a conservative. Yet in Iowa he came off once again as a reasonable moderate, in contrast with the candidates of the far right.

In New Hampshire, Senator Dole faces intensified pressure from the right in Mr. Buchanan and from the middle in Mr. Alexander, as well as from Mr. Forbes, who must decide whether to continue his slash-and-burn strategy that apparently backfired so badly in Iowa.

Senator Dole's problem here, beyond trying to fend off the Forbes attacks, was the same one that has always plagued him -- his failure to articulate a forward-looking agenda and a weakness with younger voters. A poll of Iowa caucus-goers indicated that 65 percent of his support came from voters over 45.

TTC While Mr. Buchanan gave Senator Dole a scare in Iowa, there remains strong sentiment in the party that he is a polarizing figure who can't be nominated, and therefore if the choice comes down to the two men, Senator Dole will become the safe haven. Such thinking could provide an opening for Mr. Alexander if he is able to hold his own in New Hampshire and emerge as

the moderate alternative to Senator Dole.

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

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