Squeezing the money in Iowa poll

August 13, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

DES MOINES, Iowa -- On the eve of tomorrow's Iowa Republican straw poll, the critical question is whether the money of two of the nine competing candidates -- Texas Gov. George W. Bush and multimillionaire publisher Steve Forbes -- will so distort the outcome as to make it even less significant than most test balloting of this sort.

Mr. Bush, hiring more than 100 buses to bring supporters to the Iowa State University campus in Ames to vote, is making barely a dent in the $30 million he has on hand after taking in an astounding $37.2 million in the first half of this year.

Mr. Forbes, chartering nearly as many buses, offered rides and free tickets via costly mailings and phone calls; he has a personal well into which to dip. In a gesture some rivals suggest only insults the intelligence of Iowans, he is also offering trinkets -- silver and gold campaign lapel pins and T-shirts -- and instant photos with the candidate himself as inducements to vote for him.

Struggling to keep abreast, or at least avoid being left in the dust, the seven other candidates are also distributing free tickets and as much transportation to Ames as they can afford.

But whatever is being spent by candidates Bush and Forbes for the straw poll is only the tip of a money iceberg that threatens to cause the campaigns of the other candidates to crash and sink sooner or later. Third-time contender Pat Buchanan, for example, notes that he has $100,000 on hand compared with Mr. Bush's $30 million, and asks how he is expected to compete that way.

Mr. Buchanan argues that money is killing the traditional role of the Iowa caucuses, the real voting that is to take place in late January or early February. If only the two candidates with the big money can survive Iowa, he says, the state's role of sending three or four serious contenders on into the New Hampshire primary, next on the presidential campaign calendar, will be destroyed.

Iowa has always been the state where the winnowing out of candidates begins, but Mr. Buchanan suggests in 2000 it could begin and end here.

All the other Republican candidates in the straw poll -- former Vice President Dan Quayle, former Cabinet secretary Elizabeth Dole, former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, Sen. Orrin Hatch, Christian activist Gary Bauer and Reagan administration official Alan Keyes -- vow that they will also persevere. So, obviously, will Sen. John McCain, who has elected to skip the Iowa straw poll.

The others are striving by the force of their messages and individual campaigning to fire up the faithful here. Mr. Bush, in fact, is the only active participant who has been campaigning only sparingly in Iowa, and leisurely at that. Mr. Forbes obviously hopes Iowa will force several of the others out. His campaign manager, Bill Dal Col, says the objective is to have voters around the country quickly see the Republican nomination fight as one between Mr. Forbes and Mr. Bush.

In one sense, the stakes in the straw poll are highest for Governor Bush because he is expected to win. Mr. Buchanan uses the old tactic of suggesting that if Mr. Bush doesn't get 50 percent of the vote he will be the loser. But in a nine-person field of candidates aggressively organizing in this kind of exercise, that would be quite a feat.

In 1987, his father finished third in the Iowa straw vote and was nominated anyway. The Iowa straw poll hasn't been a do-or-die event in the past and won't be this time.

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

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