Vice President Gore joins large, early parade for Iowa caucuses

October 29, 1997|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Vice President Al Gore went to Iowa over the weekend to speak at the state Democratic Party's big annual fund-raiser. In doing so, he proved once again what a difference the passage of time and new political circumstances can make to politicians of ambition.

Angry speech

Precisely 10 years ago, then- Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee spoke at the party's Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Des Moines and gave the assembled Iowans an earful on what he thought about their presidential caucus process, which every four years kicks off national convention delegate selection in the country.

What he told them then was that he didn't think much of ''a nominating process that gives one state the loudest voice and then produces candidates who cannot even carry that state.'' Iowa, he noted, hadn't voted for a Democratic presidential nominee since 1964.

Furthermore, Mr. Gore said, ''I won't do what the pundits say it takes to win Iowa -- flatter you with promises, change my tune and back down on my convictions. . . . I won't play that game or abide by those rules. . . . I will not barter my beliefs to win votes here or elsewhere. . . . If that's what it takes to win the Iowa caucuses, I won't do it.''

What Mr. Gore did not mention that night was that he was running like a dry creek in advance of the 1988 caucuses, despite having a paid staff of 21 in the state, including 14 field organizers, and had bused in a crowd of Tennessee supporters to cheer the remarks that otherwise went over with Iowa Democrats like a sharp slap in the kisser. He obviously had no chance in the Iowa caucuses and was preparing to cut his losses.

Early parade

Now, a decade later, here he was joining what veteran political reporter David Yepsen of the Des Moines Register calls an unprecedented early parade of presidential aspirants from both major parties bent on wooing Iowa voters for the next election, still three years off.

According to Mr. Yepsen, when he encountered Mr. Gore in Iowa one day in 1995 and asked him about the announcement that day that Gov. Pete Wilson of California would not be competing in the 1996 Republican caucuses, a poker-faced Mr. Gore replied: ''What a dumb idea!'' So Mr. Gore did not fail to see the value of the Iowa caucuses after all.

Big wins

If Iowa's previous voting record was really a rationale for staying out of its caucuses in 1988, it certainly doesn't stand up now. In November 1988, Democrat Michael Dukakis carried the state, 55 percent to 45, over Republican George Bush, and in 1992 and 1996 Democrat Bill Clinton also carried it, by 44-38 over Mr. Bush the first time and over Republican Bob Dole by 50-40 the second.

But more than that has changed since Mr. Gore's 1988 diatribe against the Iowa caucuses. Ten years ago, Mr. Gore was looking ahead to the year's bunch of early Southern state primaries on Super Tuesday as his base and hoping essentially to duck Iowa and also the New Hampshire primary after setting up a presence in both states.

This time, he approaches the Iowa caucuses as a national candidate as the sitting vice president and presumed front-runner, although prospective challenger House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri won the 1988 Iowa caucuses and has been working his neighboring state hard.

Mr. Gephardt's strength in Iowa may be organized labor, which backed him in the state in 1988 and has been revitalized politically under new AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. Mr. Gephardt is aggressively on labor's side in its opposition to the new ''fast-track'' trade legislation embraced so strongly by Messrs. Clinton and Gore.

Labor protest

At Mr. Gore's speech the other night, the Iowa United Auto Workers boycotted the affair and as many as 100 protesters held up signs or distributed leaflets opposing his support of ''fast track.'' If the vice president has now decided that the Iowa caucuses aren't such a bum exercise after all, this position that he can't disown without crossing his president could cause him some grief in Iowa in 2000.

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

Pub Date: 10/29/97

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