Iowa vote will test the power of money

Bush and Forbes hope to lap potential field of GOP `alternatives'

August 13, 1999|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

AMES, Iowa -- Amid much ballyhoo, nine candidates and more than 10,000 Iowa voters will gather here tomorrow for parties, speeches and a straw poll that is likely to set the unofficial pecking order for next year's Republican presidential race.

Such straw polls are widely disparaged as meaningless and have not been clear predictors of the eventual nominee. But the candidates have thrown so much money and organizational effort into doing well in this one, and so much news media attention has been focused on it that it is being treated here as if the voting will be a real election.

It won't be. That will come in Iowa in late January or early February, when the state's traditional kickoff precinct caucuses will be held -- and real delegates to the nominating convention will be at stake. But the straw poll will test whether big money conquers all, or whether grass-roots organizational skills can compensate for the lack of it.

The two best-financed candidates, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, who is the front-runner, and Steve Forbes, a self-financed multimillionaire publisher, have abundant funds to bankroll heavy turnout efforts and hire fleets of buses to ship voters to Ames for the straw poll. Bush's campaign treasury -- $37.2 million raised in the first half of this year and about $30 million on hand -- dwarfs that of any of the other contenders except Forbes.

Forbes' campaign manager, Bill Dal Col, says he hopes the straw poll will start winnowing the field -- in voters' minds, at least -- to a two-man race between his man and Bush. That isn't likely, if only because one major candidate, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, chose not to compete in the Iowa straw vote.

McCain's move might prove to be the better part of political valor if, as expected, Bush runs well ahead in tomorrow's test balloting. Bush has said he "intends" to win. That has raised expectations particularly high, and anything less than a clear Bush victory would be seen as an embarrassment.

Race for respectability

The other hopefuls are scrambling with their own relatively scarce resources, and the appeal of their messages, to try to make a respectable showing in the straw poll. They know that a failure to do so could discourage donors from continuing to contribute.

With Bush the heavy favorite by virtue of his money and a rapidly formed consensus in the party that he is its best bet to beat the Democratic nominee in 2000, the straw poll shapes up as a contest to determine who will be regarded as the most serious alternative to Bush down the road.

Vying for that role among the more conservative bloc are Forbes; former Vice President Dan Quayle; Patrick J. Buchanan, the conservative commentator; Gary Bauer, former head of the Family Research Council, who is regarded by some as the sleeper in the field for a surprise showing; and Alan L. Keyes, a radio talk-show host from Maryland.

Competing to be recognized as the strongest moderate alternative to Bush are former Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee; Elizabeth Hanford Dole, a former Cabinet secretary; and the absent McCain. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, a late starter who falls somewhere between the two groupings, has said he has entered the race to be available if Bush should stumble.

Forbes has been airing television and radio commercials that present him in his new mode as a Christian conservative, seeking to win the support of abortion foes in a state where the issue has had considerable impact on Republican politics.

Dislike for Forbes

Four years ago, Forbes trod uncertainly on the abortion issue, and his campaign here was marked by harsh attacks on the front-running Bob Dole and other rivals. He generated animosity among them that has not dissipated.

Alexander has the state's most prominent Republican, former four-term Gov. Terry E. Branstad, as his national campaign chairman and leader in an ambitious organizational effort that is taking the candidate to all 99 counties in the state. Alexander finished third in the 1996 Iowa caucuses behind Dole and Buchanan and never really stopped campaigning here.

At the same time, Iowa is a state where it is possible that candidates can survive without big money, says Kayne Robinson, the state Republican chairman. He notes that Buchanan and former TV evangelist Pat Robertson "both did well here without it" in earlier straw polls and caucuses, with intimate grass-roots campaigning.

"I'm in," the underfinanced Alexander says flatly, rejecting speculation that he could be the next candidate to fold. "I'm building a caucus organization, not a straw poll organization."

Dave Hudson, Quayle's Iowa manager, says the same for his man. "I don't think we're going to win the straw poll," he says, "but we're not going to do poorly."

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