Gore, Bush out in front

Both expected to win their party caucuses in today's Iowa vote

Poll predicts 2-1 margins

Candidates spend day making final pleas for support, turnout

January 24, 2000|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

DES MOINES, Iowa -- Presidential front-runners Al Gore and George W. Bush appear headed for big victories in their party caucuses tonight, as Iowans cast the first votes of the 2000 campaign.

Five Republican and two Democratic candidates delivered last-minute pitches for support across the state yesterday, while a new poll showed Bush and Gore beating their nearest rivals here by two-to-one margins.

The vice president increased his lead in the Des Moines Register survey to 28 percentage points over Bill Bradley, who has committed considerable time and money to Iowa. At the same time, the newspaper, the state's largest, gave Bradley its endorsement, praising his "compelling vision and fundamental decency."

Any chance Bradley may have had of embarrassing the vice president today appears to have been snuffed out by the overwhelming political force mobilized on Gore's behalf. Organized labor is urging its members to support Gore, and dozens of administration and Democratic Party officials have campaigned on his behalf here in recent weeks.

"I want to fight for you on every challenge that you face," Gore told a rally last night at a union hall in Newton, Iowa. "I want to fight for you, and I want to be your next president. I want you to fight for me.

The latest poll put Bradley's support at 28 percent, down from 33 percent two weeks ago. The margin of error in the survey, completed Friday, is four percentage points.

His slide in the poll raised the prospect that the former New Jersey senator might not reach his own, extremely modest goal when voters gather tonight in 2,100 precincts around the state. Bradley has said he wants to outperform his party's last insurgent candidate, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who drew a disappointing 31 percent in his 1980 caucus challenge against President Jimmy Carter.

Bradley, dogged in the closing hours of the campaign by questions about his irregular heartbeat, seemed unruffled by the prospect of losing Iowa and, perhaps, New Hampshire, where polls show him trailing Gore. He said he'd stay in the race at least through the big round of primaries in California, New York, Maryland and other states March 7.

As the race intensifies this week, the Democratic challenger signaled his intention to stay on the high road, even though many politicians believe he's been hurt by his failure to respond more effectively to Gore's attacks.

"I think you can tell people what you're for and not trash your opponent," Bradley said on CBS's "Face the Nation." "The reality is that this is a real test for all of us, to see if we can make our politics better to get to an Election Day when the choice is between two candidates that you esteem, not between two candidates, one of whom you can barely tolerate. And I think that that ultimately is what my effort is about."

Bradley accused Gore of running "misleading" ads against him but insisted he wouldn't respond in kind. The Gore campaign continued to defend its commercials, with Gore strategist Bob Shrum noting that the vice president has yet to air a spot that mentions Bradley by name.

On the Republican side, Bush, whose father won Iowa's caucuses 20 years ago, tried again to tamp down overconfidence among his backers.

"I'm working extremely hard because I'm worried that people will take these polls and say, `He doesn't need my help.' And so we're trying to turn out the vote," the Texas governor said on ABC's "This Week."

Bush attended services at an evangelical church in Des Moines, the state's largest city. According to some estimates, social and religious conservatives will cast nearly half the Republican caucus vote, and Bush was under attack last week from opponents who are questioning his commitment to the anti-abortion cause.

"I ran as a pro-life candidate. I've been a pro-life governor," said Bush, after services in which he and his most prominent Iowa supporter, Sen. Charles E. Grassley, joined hands with other male worshipers after a sermon about how to be better fathers.

Bush is the choice of 43 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers, according to the poll in the Register, which also endorsed him.

The survey indicated that Steve Forbes' efforts to trip Bush up heading into next week's New Hampshire primary are being frustrated by an unlikely force: the candidacy of radio talk show host Alan L. Keyes.

Keyes, a former Reagan administration official from Gaithersburg, is in a statistical tie for third in the latest Register poll with conservative activist Gary L. Bauer and Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

Forbes placed second in the poll with 20 percent. But the survey revealed that Keyes' passionate rhetoric has helped him steal conservative votes away from the wealthy publisher.

Forbes refused yesterday to say whether he would endorse Bush. McCain, who is not campaigning in Iowa, returned yesterday to New Hampshire, which holds the nation's leadoff primary one week from tomorrow. A new Newsweek poll showed Bush leading McCain by nine points in the Granite State, but most other public surveys have shown McCain with a slight lead.

Iowa officials say tonight's turnout could break a record set the last time both parties had contested nominations, in 1988. Some 235,000 voters are expected to take part, but that still represents fewer than one out of seven registered voters.

The weather is not expected to be a factor. Seasonal conditions are forecast across the state, with temperatures in the 20s and little or no chance of snow.

Sun staff writer Ellen Gamerman contributed to this article.

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