Candidates targeting Iowa vote

April 09, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

DES MOINES, Iowa -- In presidential politics, Iowa for nearly a quarter of a century has been known as the "winnowing-out" state. Its precinct caucuses traditionally have kicked off the process that determines the presidential nominees of the two major parties, and they have proved to be the graveyard of many White House aspirants.

In 2000, Iowa is likely to play that role again in the Republican Party, though not as likely in the Democratic. The reason is that as of now at least 11 Republicans are committed to, or seriously considering, a presidential candidacy, to only two -- Vice President Al Gore and former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey -- on the Democratic side.

The reality of presidential politics is that if a long shot or little-known candidate doesn't show early strength among voters, he will have a tough time raising the money he needs to press on -- unless, that is, he is self-financed like multi-millionaire Republican hopeful Steve Forbes.

So the large GOP field will no doubt be sharply reduced by the results of the Iowa caucuses, and the New Hampshire first-in-the-nation primary eight days later.

The candidates' awareness of Iowa's role as the place of first cut has already generated a mini-stampede to the state 10 months before any votes are cast. But for the Republican Party here, the situation is complicated by upstart fellow Republicans in Louisiana bent on stealing Iowa's traditional role as host of the first caucuses of the year.

The Iowa GOP has set next Feb. 7 as the date for its caucuses but its party counterpart in Louisiana is eyeing Jan. 29 as its most likely date in the hope of drawing most of the Republican candidates there first.

Louisiana ploy

The Louisiana state party actually did steal a march on Iowa in 1996 by hurriedly slapping together a voting process that looked more like a primary and holding it days before the Iowa caucuses. It fizzled, in large part because the Iowa tradition is so strong, and the GOP candidates in 1995 had already invested much time and money in Iowa.

The Iowa Republican chairman at the time, Brian Kennedy, took some of the wind out of Louisiana's sails by getting most of his party's presidential candidates to pledge to boycott the Louisiana exercise.

This time around, the new Iowa party chairman, Kayne Robinson, says he won't ask the Republican candidates to pledge to bypass the Louisiana vote, and instead will concentrate on making the Iowa caucuses a better opportunity for the candidates to show their stuff.

"There's something about asking candidates for pledges or things like that that leaves a bad taste in my mouth," he says. "The thing for us to do is to make the Iowa caucuses a credible test." And if Louisiana persists in its determination to hold the first caucuses on the 2000 calendar, Mr. Robinson says, he's not inclined to switch his date "just to play a gotcha game with them."

There is, however, a complication for the Iowa Republicans on the date for which they require relief from the Iowa Democrats.

Caucus dates

Under Democratic National Committee rules, the 2000 Democratic caucuses are supposed to be held next year on Feb. 21, and the Republicans hope the Democrats here can get a waiver from the national party to move their date to Feb. 7, too.

Right now, it's considered likely to happen, which will be a good thing for another reason having to do with the 2000 political calendar.

Two megastates, California and New York, have moved up their primary dates to March 7. By holding both parties' Iowa caucuses on Feb. 7, and the New Hampshire primary eight days later as is likely, there will be three weeks thereafter for candidates who fare well in Iowa and New Hampshire to capitalize on their success before the two huge megastate votes.

Long-shot candidates look to Iowa and New Hampshire as places to exceed their expectations and thus generate free publicity and more campaign funds, and the longer the time before they have to face the California and New York tests, the better for them -- in theory, anyway.

The date of the Iowa caucuses may seem like inside baseball, but not to the candidates for whom the voting here may be a lease on their political life, or the end of the road.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 4/09/99

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