McCain's gamble in Iowa

August 16, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

DES MOINES, Iowa -- One Republican presidential candidate assured his survival from Saturday's highly hyped Iowa straw poll by boycotting it.

Sen. John McCain vacationed elsewhere while nine other White House hopefuls orated, groveled and spent scads of campaign money to persuade Iowa voters to back them in the state party's extravaganza, which produced bragging rights but not a single delegate for the GOP national convention next year.

While the others scratched for national recognition from the small army of radio, television, newspaper and magazine reporters who covered the event, Senator McCain held true to his word expressed earlier this year that he would take part in no straw polls.

Rick Davis, his campaign manager, gives the reason: "Pure and simple, it's a waste of money." He notes that Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas "spent $800,000 last time (in 1995) to create momentum and raise money, and he did neither."

Gramm campaign

Four years ago, Mr. Gramm actually finished in a first-place tie with then Sen. Bob Dole in the Iowa Republican straw poll, with 24.4 percent of the vote each, but faltered badly thereafter and wound up a dismal fifth in the Iowa caucuses, persuading him to drop out of the race.

Mr. Davis says that once a candidate got into last Saturday's straw poll, the pressure mounted for him to win. The smartest thing, he says, was to bypass it, and then make a decision about what to do in Iowa after the hoopla over the straw poll had died down. In skipping it, however, Mr. McCain fanned speculation that he may not compete in next winter's Iowa caucuses either.

Such a step would be a much bigger gamble than staying out of the straw poll. In 1976, Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson of Washington basically opted out of the Iowa caucuses, also gave New Hampshire a pass and focused on Massachusetts, which he won, but ran out of gas, and money, thereafter.

In 1988, then Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee not only skipped the Iowa caucuses but derogated the Iowa process in doing so, in a still-remembered speech at a major party dinner in Des Moines. His effort in New Hampshire also was meager and his first presidential campaign ran also aground.

Dave Hudson, former Iowa campaign manager for Vice President Dan Quayle, says Mr. McCain's opposition to federal subsidies of $800 million a year for ethanol, a very important corn grain byproduct in Iowa, may be a factor in his absence in the straw poll and perhaps in the caucuses to come. "Anyone who doesn't support ethanol takes a risk in our state, because corn is our biggest crop."

Defends ethanol stand

Senator McCain, in a letter to the Des Moines Register, strongly defended his anti-ethanol stand on grounds the fuel is actually a serious pollutant and that more than half of the subsidy goes to a single company, Archer Daniels Midland Corp., that has contributed more than $4.5 million to political campaigns in the last 10 years.

Rival candidate Pat Buchanan says the letter was a publicity gambit to show Mr. McCain as a courageous politician when he has no intention of competing the Iowa caucuses, focusing instead on the New Hampshire, South Carolina and Arizona primaries to follow, where he will be on more hospitable ground.

But Monte Shaw, who is running former cabinet secretary Elizabeth Dole's campaign here, says the senator's opposition to ethanol shouldn't keep him out of Iowa. "We're proud of our caucuses," he says.

"This isn't a game for us. We take being first (in the nomination process) very seriously. We like candidates to come look us in the eye, even if they take positions we don't agree with."

The Iowa Republican state chairman, Kayne Robinson, says flatly that Mr. McCain made "a mistake" skipping the straw poll and will compound it if he also passes up the Iowa caucuses. "He has a unique ability to (discuss) foreign affairs and defense," issues that have received little attention in the campaign.

Mr. Davis says it is "presumptuous" to assume that Senator McCain will boycott the Iowa caucuses, and that "everything is on the table". But he won't be pinned down either on whether his candidate will participate. Staying out is a gamble that Mr. McCain may well take.

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

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