The Magazine


Aug 30, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 47 • By MIKE MURPHY
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Ames, Iowa

THE AMES STRAW POLL may have looked like a huckster's carnival, but under the bigtop lurked the first killing field of the GOP race. The "invisible primary" of early money and endorsements is now over and the real race has begun. Where does it go from here?

Ames was the first demonstration of the inescapable gravity of the nominating process, in which tiny numbers of votes in early states are fantastically multiplied by perceived expectations to either crush campaigns or catapult them mightily ahead.

The first victims were Lamar Alexander, Pat Buchanan, and Dan Quayle. Alexander's weak showing choked off his fund-raising and ended his campaign. Quayle's even weaker showing marginalized him and put his campaign into the purgatory of the cash-poor: no money for TV, field staff, or a multi-state organization. In other words, no campaign. Buchanan saw himself deposed as king of Iowa's religious Right by Gary Bauer. Unfortunately for the eventual Republican nominee, Pat's hot tamale applause lines may be headed for the top of the Reform party ticket.

No doubt about it, George W. Bush was the biggest winner at Ames. He said he'd win and he did. He's still front-runner by a mile. But Bush, Inc., wanted to clean clocks in Ames and that didn't happen. In the barroom primary held the night before the straw poll, in which reporters and campaign henchmen, led by Bush spinners, handicap the likely result, the official off-the-record unofficial Bush win was Texas-sized, anywhere from 50 percent (the favorite figure a few weeks ago) to 37 percent (the lowball estimate of the day before Ames). The implied Bush message: "We're gonna mow through these second-tier losers like extras in a Jackie Chan movie. Watch." But with just 31 percent of the total vote, Bush won small. Small enough to leave a tiny drop of blood in the water.

Here's why 31 percent is a sign of potential trouble in Iowa for Bush. This straw poll was big -- almost one quarter the size of the likely Iowa caucus vote -- so the 69 percent who voted for someone other than Bush cannot be dismissed with the usual patter about straw polls: a motley collection of high-turnout malcontents with nothing better to do than show up, wear funny hats, and howl encouragement at Alan Keyes.

If on that cold Iowa night next January, Bush "wins" the Iowa caucus with a number like 31 percent, the media will gleefully devour him. Remember poor old Walter Mondale. He beat Gary Hart 49 percent to 16.5 percent in Iowa. That win was widely reported as a loss. And Hart was flung into New Hampshire on the magic carpet of "momentum." It's the front-runner's nightmare, and to avoid it next January, Bush is going to have to do better. Iowa will now be a race between Bush, Forbes, Dole, and Bauer. Paid television ads will pop up soon. Despite the silly myths about retail campaigning, in Iowa as in all the early states, paid advertising is the big campaign driver.

By placing a respectable third in the straw poll, Elizabeth Dole got back in the race. Her problem? Success demands more success. That means move polls, raise money, answer questions. Dole has cooked up her own new adjective ideology -- "courageous conservatism" (get it?). Look for that slogan and more on Iowa and New Hampshire television as soon as Dole tries to take voter share away from Bush and move media polls. To gain traction, Dole is going to have to ratchet up her performance beyond her feel-good stump speech. Her dodgy performance with the national media on whether Medicaid should fund abortions last week was not a good sign. Still, Dole is now Bush's main competitor for the regular Republican vote in Iowa.

Gary Bauer also needs to get on the air and start solidifying his support from religious conservatives. Bauer has an opportunity to surprise a lot of people. Nearly a third of the voters in the typical Iowa caucus are religious conservatives, so if Bauer can unite that vote behind his candidacy -- as Pat Robertson did in 1988 -- he'll finish second, or even first. Bauer has some cutting issues -- abortion, China -- that count with a big chunk of the caucus electorate; he needs to put them in play on television.