GOP's thinning field no surprise

January 28, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- The totally predictable end to Sen. Orrin Hatch's dismal bid for the Republican presidential nomination reduces the GOP field to five for Tuesday's first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary. That's down from the even-dozen hopefuls who were in competition just five months ago at that super-hyped straw vote in Iowa.

Mr. Hatch technically is the only one of the seven casualties winnowed out by a poor finish in Monday's Iowa caucuses, inasmuch as the other six -- Lamar Alexander, Dan Quayle, Elizabeth Dole, Sen. Bob Smith, Rep. John Kasich and Pat Buchanan -- all folded their tents as GOP entries well before those caucuses. They were driven out by the reality of the vastly superior financial resources of Gov. George W. Bush and the self-bankrolled Steve Forbes, as well as their own political shortcomings.

Still, two other long-shots with about as much chance of being nominated as Barney the Dinosaur -- Alan Keyes and Gary Bauer -- are hanging in, for at least one obvious reason beyond pipe dreams of sitting in the Oval Office. As fervent ideologues of the religious right, they are well aware that there is no better platform for dispensing their views than the presidential campaign pulpit.

They are, to be sure, entitled to keep running, but in doing so they complicate the task of Mr. Forbes, in spite of his strong second-place finish to Mr. Bush in Iowa, to become the clear-cut conservative alternative to the Texas governor for the Republican nomination.

With Sen. John McCain, the man who is leading Mr. Bush in the polls in New Hampshire, taking a pass in Iowa, the four competitors on the right -- Mr. Forbes, Mr. Keyes, Mr. Bauer and Mr. Hatch -- collectively out-polled Bush in Iowa. The continued presence of Mr. Keyes and Mr. Bauer in New Hampshire deprives Mr. Forbes of the kind of solidarity for him among religious conservatives he needs to throw a real scare into the Bush campaign here.

Mr. Bush, meanwhile, has his hands full with Mr. McCain, whose decision to stay out of the Iowa caucus competition looks better and better in retrospect. He saved a great deal of money by not taking on the Bush money machine in Iowa, a state that did not figure to be very hospitable to him anyway. Just as important, he was able to concentrate on New Hampshire while the Texan was obliged to fend off the rest of the field in Iowa.

Now, the campaign calendar and the winter weather have conspired to make the New Hampshire primary a sprint for the Republicans who sloughed through Iowa, with detours from time to time to the Granite State. The determination of New Hampshire to remain the first primary state reduced the time between the Iowa caucuses and the primary here to only eight days.

Then the heavy snowstorm that battered the East Coast last Monday and Tuesday for all practical purposes wiped out the first of those eight days for campaigning in New Hampshire. After that, candidate preparations for Wednesday night's debates in both parties took up most of a second day. Beyond that, the Super Bowl on Sunday likely will make it hard for the candidates to get and hold primary voters' attention on that day as well.

The conventional wisdom seems to expect that if Mr. Bush and the Democratic front-runner, Al Gore, win decisively again in New Hampshire on Tuesday, the ball game may be over in both parties. But that expectation does not take into adequate consideration the significance of money in the 2000 campaign. Mr. Forbes on the Republican side and Bill Bradley on the Democratic both have the campaign finances to press on to Super Tuesday on March 7, when 11 states including California and New York will hold primaries.

One of the best arguments for holding the first two real tests in Iowa and New Hampshire has been that candidates with low name recognition and modest campaign resources have a chance to break through. That has been less valid this year than ever, with money in the hands of the most well-heeled competitors playing the winnowing-out role more than the voters in either state.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

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