First in Iowa for the front-runners

Presidential primaries: Good news for Gore, mixed success for Bush sets up New Hampshire showdowns.

January 26, 2000

THE TWO heavyweights won the Republican and Democratic presidential caucuses in Iowa on Monday night. That's not a surprise. But their margins of victory present them with sharply contrasting predicaments.

Iowa was supposed to be a cakewalk for Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the genial candidate touting a centrist message as a "compassionate conservative." He gained 41 percent of the Republican caucus votes but was overshadowed by the showing of right-wing conservatives Steve Forbes and Alan Keyes. Combined, they won 44 percent of the GOP vote.

Mr. Bush could have his hands full this week fending off their sharp barbs for being "soft" on abortion rights and other social issues while he simultaneously wages an uphill fight against Arizona Sen. John McCain, the maverick reformer who ranks first in New Hampshire polls.

Mr. Bush also could be hurt by the unexpected strength of Vice President Al Gore in Iowa's Democratic caucuses. The vice president gained considerable momentum by trouncing former Sen. Bill Bradley by 29 percentage points, even though Mr. Bradley had outspent him and devoted far more time campaigning in Iowa.

Mr. Gore's aggressiveness hit a responsive chord that gives him strong momentum for Tuesday's New Hampshire primary. An early Bradley lead there has vanished.

The problem for Republican Bush is that Mr. Gore's landslide Iowa victory could persuade New Hampshire's independent voters to cast their ballots in the Republican primary, which appears more closely contested. That could help the maverick candidate, Mr. McCain.

Between now and the March 7 "Super Tuesday" string of primaries -- including Maryland's -- the two parties' presidential nominations likely will be decided. The front-runners have a distinct advantage as the campaigns broaden beyond Iowa and New Hampshire.

This is a flawed selection system. Letting a handful of states dictate the scheduling of party elections is a huge mistake that should be corrected after this year's campaigning is over.

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