Favorites lead in Iowa

January 24, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

DES MOINES -- After months of beating the Iowa bushes, the Republican and Democratic candidates are likely to find out in tonight's kickoff precinct caucuses that nothing basically has changed in the two parties' pecking orders.

Barring a major upset in either party, Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore will still be leading the way into next week's New Hampshire primaries, where the polls say their competition has been considerably tougher.

Mr. Bush, talking here the other day about inspiring school kids, observed that "it's important to talk about high expectations." But in politics it's just the opposite. Low expectations are what the savvy candidate wants, so he can exceed them on election night.

Reading the Iowa caucus results has always been an expectations game, and this time around will be no exception. If the front-runners -- Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore win -- they will only be confirming the expected. Each needs to rout the opposition -- Mr. Bush over the other five GOP candidates, Mr. Gore over former senator Bill Bradley -- to get much news-media credit for their labors in the state.

Spindoctors on call

For all the others except Democrat Bradley, expectations have been so low all along that there will be wholesale spinning Monday night. Even a modest showing by any candidate will be seized upon to claim he is the real winner of the Iowa caucuses.

Mr. Bradley may have the most at stake because he alone of the actively competing candidates in Iowa (Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, did not campaign here) is still generally regarded as having a chance for his party's nomination, albeit not a strong one. Mr. Bradley's campaign in the state had been building until a debate with Mr. Gore threw him on the defensive on farm issues critical in Iowa. Mr. Gore unveiled a 1993 Bradley vote against flood relief that Mr. Bradley at first didn't even bother to explain, and his candidacy seemed to go into a stall thereafter.

For all of Mr. Bradley's insistence that he is running a different kind of campaign, his strategists are resorting to an old ploy in the expectations game -- lowering the bar that, in their view, he must clear to declare the Iowa campaign a success.

They point to the 31 percent Sen. Ted Kennedy won in 1980 against President Jimmy Carter here, arguing that Mr. Bradley is engaged in a similar insurgency campaign against "entrenched power" in the party. But unless Mr. Bradley fares considerably better than 31 percent -- say, winning at least 40 percent and holding Mr. Gore under 60 -- he won't have much to brag about for more than a year's campaigning in Iowa.

On the Republican side, publisher Steve Forbes may have the most riding on the Iowa outcome. Although he has been running far behind Mr. Bush in the polls, he has spent an extraordinary amount of personal money and time in the state, backed by a large professional staff that has built a grass-roots organization in all 99 counties.

These resources in themselves have raised expectations for him, along with large crowds he has attracted -- or pulled. Anything less than a clear second behind Mr. Bush will take away whatever steam Mr. Forbes has generated in Iowa.

Running on empty

For the other competing Republicans -- Gary Bauer, Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Alan Keyes -- it's hard to see what any of them can get out of Iowa except possibly a gasp or two of oxygen as they struggle on. Mr. Hatch may well quit if he runs poorly.

Mr. McCain, by opting out but coming here for two candidate debates, had hopes to finish ahead of the also-rans, and that is still a possibility, although without the grass-roots organizing considered so vital to the caucus process, a third-place finish now seems a long shot.

Nowhere more than in the Iowa caucuses is the expectations game played so hard. Doing better than expected can bring contributions and publicity to candidates who pull it off.

But sooner or later winning is the only thing, as players in the expectations game eventually must recognize.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau. Mr. Germond's latest book is "Fat Man in a Middle Seat -- 40 Years of Covering Politics."

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