First place not always a win in Iowa vote

Presidential candidates try to meet expectations

January 23, 2000|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

DES MOINES, Iowa -- The formal process of choosing the next president will start this week exactly where the campaign began many months ago: with Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush as strong favorites to become the nominees.

Bush and Gore are expected to finish first in tomorrow's Iowa precinct caucuses, the opening contest on the path to this summer's national conventions. Both men are running 20 percentage points or more ahead of their nearest rivals in the latest polling here.

"We're going to make a good showing maybe and surprise a lot of people," said former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, the lone Democrat challenging Gore. Aiming for an early upset, the one-time basketball star has poured a record $1.9 million into television commercials in Iowa, opened 11 field offices and spent more than 75 days campaigning in the state over the past year.

But Bradley's efforts to sway undecided voters were complicated by reports late last week that he had suffered renewed occurrences of an irregular heartbeat, raising new questions about his health and his campaign's handling of the matter.

On the Republican side, Arizona Sen. John McCain's decision to skip Iowa has left Steve Forbes in second place. The wealthy publisher is making a strong anti-abortion appeal in an effort to cut into Bush's support from Iowa's large bloc of social and religious conservatives.

Bush told reporters yesterday that he would not try to change the party's platform plank that calls for a constitutional amendment outlawing abortion. The party's position goes beyond Bush's stance: He favors allowing exceptions for cases of rape and incest or when the mother's life is in jeopardy.

"I think that the Republican Party ought to keep its pro-life plank," said Bush, who also said he does not believe the country is ready to approve an anti-abortion amendment. "The first step is to convince Americans that we ought to value life."

As the first voter test of the presidential race, the Iowa caucuses typically provide winning candidates with a boost heading into the New Hampshire primary eight days later.

But exactly how large, and how long-lasting, that boost will be is "unfathomable," says Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster not connected with any campaign. He describes New Hampshire's electorate as volatile, which could mean large swings in voter opinion during the intense week of campaigning that starts Tuesday.

Both Bush and Gore, hoping to put a quick end to their nomination contests, are looking for back-to-back victories in Iowa and New Hampshire. No candidate in a contested nomination fight has managed that feat since Jimmy Carter, whose 1976 victory put Iowa's caucuses on the map.

In 1980, George Bush, the governor's father, won in Iowa but was defeated in New Hampshire. In 1988, the third-place finishers in Iowa became the nominees. In 1992, Bill Clinton lost both states. In 1996, Bob Dole was upset in New Hampshire by Pat Buchanan after having won in Iowa.

That pattern has raised questions about Iowa's ability to select the eventual nominee, but it hasn't stopped the current candidates from spending more time and money than ever wooing the relatively small number of Iowans who will show up at 8 p.m. tomorrow, Eastern time.

About 100,000 voters in each party will gather at about 2,100 caucus sites around the states, including schools, community centers and a few living rooms.

Iowans point out that no presidential candidate has won the nomination without finishing in the top three in the caucuses. Often, a second- or third-place finish can seem almost like a victory if it exceeds the expectations set by politicians and the news media.

With that in mind, here is a look at the candidates' prospects and a guide to divining the meaning of the caucus results.

Al Gore

As an incumbent vice president with strong backing from President Clinton, Gore always figured to do well in Iowa. But uncertainty about the depth of anti-Clinton sentiment at the grass roots, and Gore's stumbling start, raised doubts about how well he would fare.

His active support from labor unions and party officials here is a huge advantage, because caucuses are ultimately an organizational test. To counter Bradley's popularity among left-wing activists, the Gore campaign dispatched well-known liberals to Iowa this weekend, including Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and nephew Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Gore is also backed by the state's popular Democratic senator, Tom Harkin. In a TV ad, Harkin attacks Bradley's record on farm issues and his opposition to the administration's flood aid in the early 1990s -- assistance recalled warmly by many here.

"Bradley spent more money on TV [ads] than any candidate in the history of the caucuses," says Chris Lehane, the Gore campaign spokesman, arguing that a Bradley defeat in Iowa should be considered a defeat, regardless of the victory margin.

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