Bradley under pressure

abortion splits GOP

Gore's win makes N.H. crucial for ex-N.J. senator

a litmus test for Bush?

Iowa Caucuses

January 25, 2000|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BEDFORD, N.H. -- The message in the results from the Iowa precinct caucuses is that there is still a yawning fault line in the Republican Party on the issue of abortion rights. Whether it has anything to do with the outcome of the contest for the nomination is, however, an open question.

Gov. George W. Bush of Texas won with a margin that exceeded the goals he had publicly professed for himself. But the fact that the three cultural conservative candidates -- Steve Forbes, Alan L. Keyes and Gary L. Bauer -- received more than 50 percent of the vote points to possible problems for Bush down the road.

On the Democratic side, the results were less ambiguous. Vice President Al Gore's strong showing against Bill Bradley raised obvious questions about the wisdom of the decision the former New Jersey senator made in deciding to compete in Iowa.

"There are some of us," said a prominent Bradley supporter who wished to remain unnamed, "who wonder where that idea came from."

But there is no reason to believe that the Iowa results will have any significant impact on the results in the New Hampshire primary next week.

With relatively few religious conservatives in New Hampshire, the abortion issue has far less volatility for the Republican side. Bush's competition lies with Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who ran fifth in Iowa after opting out of the competition. Like Bush, McCain has refused to make abortion rights a priority issue in his campaign.

But two potential problems for Bush grow out of the Iowa results.

The first is that he has failed to show the ability to spark much enthusiasm amid the Republican electorate. The Texas governor is clearly popular within his party, according to all the opinion polls, but he is not someone who inspires zeal among his followers. The question is whether he can compete effectively against McCain without doing so.

However, the Bush performance proved strong enough that few political professionals will challenge the conventional wisdom that he remains an overwhelming favorite for his party's nomination. He is not just a candidate with $60 million, but one who has built a broad and deep network of important supporters in his party.

So, even if McCain can defeat Bush next week in New Hampshire, the Texas governor will remain the favorite for the nomination so long as he doesn't commit a political gaffe. As a leading McCain backer here said the other day, "I think we can win New Hampshire, but I don't know where we take it."

A potentially more serious problem for Bush is that the relative success of Forbes, Keyes and Bauer will encourage all three to keep nipping at his heels.

Virtually no political professional is saying that any of those three challengers has a realistic chance of being nominated at the Republican National Convention next summer in Philadelphia. But the candidates of the religious right will be encouraged to believe that there is considerable fervor behind the anti-abortion crusade -- to the point that giving up their campaigns might appear to be giving way on a moral position.

This means, in turn, that Bush will be pressed even more aggressively on two awkward questions. The first will be whether he will insist on a litmus test of opposition to abortion for any nominee to the federal bench up to the Supreme Court. So far, Bush has refused to make that commitment.

Secondly, Bush will be pressed to promise that he will not choose anyone considered "wrong" on abortion rights as his running mate for vice president.

Bush's dilemma is that he needs some support from the conservative wing of his party to cruise to the nomination. But if he is nominated, he cannot afford to be seen as yielding to the pressures of the religious right, lest he alienate the moderate Republicans who defected in such large numbers in 1992 and 1996.

For the Democrats, the Iowa results have few long-range implications. As the insiders in both parties have recognized all along, there is little difference on issues between Gore and Bradley.

But the runaway triumph achieved by the vice president in Iowa throws Bradley very much on the defensive. The argument all along has been over electability, particularly when confronting the huge money advantages that Bush enjoys.

Thus, the pressure on Bradley has been multiplied several times over. To justify keeping his campaign alive, he must show genuine strength in the New Hampshire primary. If he does not defeat Gore or run closely behind him, leading Democrats will accuse Bradley of conducting a divisive challenge to no purpose.

Said a leading Democrat only nominally behind Gore: "Bradley is going to have to show something or he'll be just a spoiler."

In any case, there is reason to wonder how much attention New Hampshire voters were paying to the details of the Iowa result. As the returns came in, Margaret Swiezynski, Bush's co-chairman in the town of Milford, pronounced herself happy with the results.

"As long as he gets 37 percent or above, that's all we need," she said, reflecting perfectly the talking points of the Bush campaign. But she confessed that she was not paying a lot of attention to the results.

"I've been watching," she said, "but I've been switching back and forth to the roadshow," meaning the "Antiques Roadshow" program on the Public Broadcasting System. "I like that program."

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