Confident Bush camp wary of complacency

Home-grown campaign tries to ensure supporters turn out for caucuses

January 23, 2000|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

JOHNSTON, Iowa -- The truck swerves as Walt Tomenga dials his car phone, hoping to persuade his neighbors that George W. Bush does not have a lock on a big win tomorrow night. From behind the wheel on Interstate 80, and from anywhere else he can find, Tomenga is urging folks not to stay home and wait for a Bush triumph.

"Is Dave there?" the 53-year-old farm insurance executive asks from the speed lane as he works to get out the vote in this conservative suburb. "Could you tell Dave the caucus is meeting Monday night? Will you tell him to come to the table with the big `W' on it? You'll give him the message?"

While the Texas governor plows through the state battling Republican opponents in the last hours of his Iowa campaign, his supporters are coming up against a different rival: complacency.

"Participation is not just important," Tomenga says. "It's critical."

The fast-growing suburbs pass outside his truck window -- places such as Johnston, where an explosion of development and wealth have not necessarily left voters in the fighting mood that draws big crowds to the caucuses. Here in suburbs considered solid Bush country, the question is not likely to be whether Bush wins -- but by how much. The degree of victory will be scrutinized as a measure of the campaign's organizing power, and to that end, turnout is critical.

Tomenga flips off his radar detector and gets to work. He has established the truck -- the "Iowa limousine," as he calls the ubiquitous pickup -- as his command post for Bush because it is where he has the most free time. Between his insurance job and work on his nearby farm, the genial Tomenga seems a perfect fit to engage the rural residents and the yuppie newcomers in the area.

The Bush campaign is trying to use local supporters to make a more home-grown pitch to Iowans -- people such as Tomenga, who can get away with lines like, "I think they should drop the `W,' I don't like it." Tomenga is friends with some of the people he calls and conscientiously carries the others' names and numbers on index cards in the pocket of his parka. He has memorized which couples are supporting different candidates and treats the opposing spouse gingerly. ("I'll get them on board at the caucus -- I'll be friendly now, not intimidating, and hopefully I'll get them when we're face-to-face," he says.)

At Bush headquarters in suburban West Des Moines, where signs read "Our Governor Is Working Hard To Win: So Should You," staffers say they are taking nothing for granted and are sending out mailings in the final days.

But the overwhelming air is one of great confidence. At the headquarters at 7 p.m. Friday the phone banks had yet to start and desks sat abandoned as staffers sipped coffee and chatted about compassionate conservatism. The receptionist was busy fielding calls about the victory party tomorrow.

Across town at the headquarters for Vice President Al Gore, the scene on a recent evening stood in stark contrast. About 30 people sat at phones offering candidate infomercials, a pitch they say they have been making four hours a night for the past 3 1/2 months. Staffers tried all manner of tactics to get a willing ear: One soothed a reluctant voter by jabbing President Clinton on the issue of character -- something Gore would never do so bluntly.

"A lot of folks were pretty disgusted with what we had," said the staffer, Sara Norris, 24, a native Iowan. "Al Gore is the night-and-day opposite of what the last experience was. He'd make a good role model."

But Bush's race is not considered as tight as Gore's, a luxury that gives the Bush camp an air of cool self-assurance as it asks for more votes.

"I don't believe anyone can match Bush's organization," said Jenna Brownell, a volunteer in nearby Clive. The Bush campaign set a goal of 86 votes from the 200 people expected at her caucus. She vows to deliver 125.

"I think he needs to dominate in the suburbs, and I think he will," said Brownell's husband, Robert, the mayor of Clive. He believes recent advertisements by Republican rival Steve Forbes attacking Bush's record as a tax-cutter will "tick off" more Bush supporters and inspire them to vote.

The Forbes campaign is lobbying undecided voters by phone and mail until caucus night, and the candidate is making a final push on the stump.

Forbes senior adviser Steve Grubbs said the effort has reached a "frantic pace." But there was no time to elaborate: A waiting Forbes bus was honking in the background, and Grubbs ran to jump aboard.

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