Counting the straws in America's farm belt

Summer's `so what': A handful of Republicans pick presidential favorites. Should anyone care?

August 17, 1999

A SMALL number of voters, some paid by candidates, trooped to Ames, Iowa, over the weekend to vote in a nearly meaningless first step toward selecting a Republican presidential nominee for the year 2000.

The so-called straw poll proved a number of well-accepted truths: Political reporters need something to occupy them during the summer of nonelection years.

Texas Gov. George W. Bush is the party's front-runner.

Former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander is a slow learner, having finished sixth after campaigning in Iowa for six years.

Iowa represents a huge national soap box for columnist Pat Buchanan, former ambassador Alan L. Keyes and former White House aide Gary Bauer.

Publisher Steve Forbes is willing to blow a lot of his money on a quadrennial run at high office.

It is probably true that Iowa Republicans help to winnow the field. They do provide the first actual voting -- as opposed to polling -- in any presidential campaign. But since many of them are paid by the candidates to participate in the process -- and since some of them vote for someone other the candidate who gave them money -- what importance can we attach to their choices?

Besides, most Americans -- probably most Iowans -- are more concerned right now with whether to use SPF 15 or 45 than with anesthetizing speeches on conservative Republican orthodoxy.

We wonder if Arizona Sen. John McCain doesn't have it about right. He called the straw vote "a joke" and said he might not even show up for the party caucuses next winter when the Iowa GOP chooses delegates to the party's nominating convention.

The spinners say Mr. McCain's strategy could make him vulnerable to Elizabeth H. Dole, the former Red Cross president, who finished third in Iowa. They suggest the momentum -- or bounce -- will carry over into New Hampshire, giving her a tremendous advantage over Mr. McCain.

Huh?

Advantage for what? Third place in the GOP race?

If you're a political junkie, you'll stay tuned. If you're not, follow Mr. McCain's lead and wait for news from Manchester.

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