The Magazine

THE AGONY OF NOT BEING GEORGE W. BUSH

Life Among the Also-Rans

Aug 16, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 45 • By TUCKER CARLSON
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Des Moines, Iowa


Drive around Des Moines long enough and you begin to see the connection between a candidate's headquarters and the campaign he's running. The Quayle 2000 headquarters, for instance, is virtually invisible from the street and almost entirely deserted at one o'clock in the afternoon on a weekday. "Everyone's at lunch," says the lone staffer manning the phone. Elizabeth Dole's office, meanwhile, is spread out across the showroom floor of a defunct foreign car dealership. The front door is decorated with at least three No Smoking stickers. Somehow that makes sense. So does the Forbes for President office, which shares a building with the American College of Hair Styling. And the Lamar Alexander office, its window only partly filled with faded campaign signs, many held up with duct tape, that look suspiciously like leftovers from the 1996 race. And what to make of Gary Bauer's headquarters, which is located in a converted urologist's office? Or of the Keyes and Buchanan campaign HQs, both of which sit directly across the street from a porn shop?


One thing you won't see driving around Des Moines is George W. Bush's Iowa campaign office. That's because it's not in Des Moines, but in Clive, an upscale suburb west of town. From the office of any other Republican candidate, it takes a long time to get to where Bush is.


Not that the other candidates are spending much time figuring out how to get there. Bush is so far ahead in the polls that many of his opponents consider him, for now anyway, irrelevant. No one doubts Bush will win the August 14 straw poll in Ames. The question is, Who else will leave Ames with a plausible presidential campaign? There's room for three, maybe four other serious contenders. The rest will have to go home and find law firm sinecures. It's enough to make a second-string presidential candidate a little desperate.


You can see it in the campaign literature, which just about everybody but Bush has begun to produce in bales. Last week, Lamar Alexander sent out a press release boasting that his "traveling campaign got a boost in spirits when Joe Klein, political reporter for the New Yorker and author of Primary Colors, joined the tour for a couple of stops." The release didn't mention the story Klein returned to New York and wrote, which described Lamar as a pathetic loser who is "probably irrelevant" to the presidential race.


Gary Bauer, by contrast, has decided to leave nothing out of his campaign literature. In a pamphlet entitled "Testimony," Bauer tells the story of his poverty-stricken childhood -- the whole story. Bauer includes details of his father's alcoholism, his parents' marriage, even the demise of his uncle, an employee of an "organized crime syndicate" who was "machine-gunned to death" by mobsters. It makes for a compelling read, if not for a compelling reason to vote for Bauer.


If it's compelling reasons you're looking for, look no further than Alan Keyes. A headline on the latest Keyes pamphlet warns readers that "your support for Alan Keyes is critical to the destiny of America." Inside, in place of the usual heartwarming photos of the candidate with supporters, is an essay thousands of words long explaining why Americans have devolved from "a free and vigilant people" to "tax serfs." The typeface is tiny, and many of the ideas straddle the line between brilliance and eccentricity. But at least it's not slick. It's clear Keyes wrote every word himself.


Not so some of his other campaign material, which is obviously staff-produced. In June, Keyes won two minor Iowa county straw polls. The Keyes 2000 Des Moines office promptly released a statement heralding the triumph. "The Straw Poll victories," announced his campaign manager, "dispel any doubts that Alan Keyes is a viable candidate and that he has little chance to win the nomination."


Chalk it up to a typographical error, but the Keyes people seem almost honest enough to say something like this on purpose. Inside Keyes HQ in Des Moines one afternoon in late July, Ron Granzow, the campaign's Iowa chairman, is sitting at what may be the most cluttered desk in the state. Surrounded by piles of paper, a Bible, a toothbrush, containers of food, and hundreds of other objects, Granzow cheerfully explains the Keyes strategy for the Ames straw poll. The other candidates, says Granzow, a Korean War vet and former ad salesman, are buying the $ 25 tickets to the poll and giving them to supporters. Not Keyes. "We're asking people to buy their own tickets. We're asking people to sacrifice." Somewhere else in the office a baby begins to cry. Granzow takes off his glasses, which are held together with a paper clip. "Frankly," he says, smiling in a slightly embarrassed kind of way, "we don't have the money to do anything else. We couldn't give tickets away if we wanted to."


Back at the American College of Hair Styling, Jim Tobin is talking about what it's like to work for a very different kind of campaign, the kind that can afford to do just about anything it wants. Tobin is the national political director of Forbes 2000. A soft-spoken Mainer, Tobin doesn't seem like the bragging type, but there is nothing modest about his description of how Forbes has been wooing potential straw poll voters. Everyone who comes to see Forbes speak at a stop along his multi-week, 77-county bus tour through Iowa, Tobin says, gets free food. Everyone who convinces five other people to come gets a gold lapel pin and a T-shirt. And everyone who happens to be in the area when Forbes arrives gets a complimentary photograph taken with the candidate, developed and returned within an hour. "He can do 100 photos in 11 minutes," Tobin says. A grin every 6.6 seconds.


The Forbes campaign in Iowa is, like its candidate, disciplined, relentless, and rich. It is also, all of a sudden, on the defensive. Late last month, the head of the state chapter of the Christian Coalition, Bobbie Gobel, came forward to claim that a Forbes operative had approached her about buying votes in the Iowa straw poll. In February, Gobel says, a Forbes organizer named Jerry Keen called her office at Metro Temp, a temporary employment agency she owns in Des Moines, and offered to hire 500 temporary workers on the day of the straw poll. Keen, Gobel says, wanted to bus the workers to Ames with the understanding they would vote for Forbes. And, true to his candidate's flinty instincts, he didn't want to spend a dollar more than necessary. "He said they only wanted to pay for two hours," Gobel says. "They didn't want to pay for the two hour bus ride. But I said, 'We can't find 500 people to work two hours. The minimum job is four hours.'" Gobel says she thought about Keen's offer, discussed it at a Christian Coalition staff meeting (where it was entered into the minutes), and decided to decline.


Gobel's claim stayed on the front page of the Des Moines Register for almost a week. The Forbes campaign immediately and repeatedly denounced her as a liar. "The incident never happened," says Bill Dal Col, Forbes's campaign manager. "She's embarrassing herself." Off the record, other members of Forbes's staff describe Gobel as a nut case, a victim of multiple personality disorder. Within days, under pressure from the Forbes campaign, the national office of the Christian Coalition fired her.


Gobel claims she isn't angry with Steve Forbes, only saddened by his decision to take "the Clinton path." "When he calls me a liar," she says, "it doesn't hurt me. It hurts him, because he's lost and he's wandering out there in the wilderness. He needs to find Jesus. I want Forbes and his campaign workers to know I have no hostile feelings for their sin. They have to repent."


The other campaigns watched Gobelgate with glee. "Our people in Iowa believe what she said about Forbes," says Dole spokesman Ari Fleischer. Bobbie Gobel may be very religious and very conservative, says Fleischer, but she's credible. "Whatever she says about abortion or dying on the cross, she's not a liar."


Bobbie Gobel or not, Forbes is still expected to run second, if only because he has spent so much money -- reportedly over $ 2 million -- to do it. On the day of the poll, Forbes supporters will be taken to Ames free of charge in air-conditioned buses, given free tickets to vote, fed free dinner, taken on a free balloon ride, and entertained by Ronnie Milsap and Debbie Boone at a free concert. Their children will get free face painting.


It ought to be quite a party. But will it buy anything in the end for Forbes? Not in the most obvious way. Unlike most of the other candidates, Forbes could afford to stay in the race regardless of his performance at Ames. He could come in last and still be handing out gold lapel pins in New Hampshire.


On the other hand, Forbes's spending could prompt some of his poorer Republican rivals to waste much-needed cash on the straw poll, thereby forcing some of them out before the real voting begins next year. That's the strategy, says Quayle spokesman Jonathan Baron. "We're not going to fall for that. We're telling voters, 'ride their bus, eat their steak, then vote for us.' That's the official straw poll motto of Quayle 2000."


No matter who takes the silver or the bronze at Ames, however, there is still no question about who will emerge with the gold. George W. Bush will still be in the lead when it's all over. It can be frustrating.


Not long ago, David Kochel, the Iowa campaign manager for the Lamar Alexander campaign, saw Dan Quayle sitting at a table in a steakhouse in Des Moines. Alexander and Quayle are, of course, rivals and, under ordinary circumstances, it would have been uncomfortable for Kochel to approach Quayle. But Bush's lead has changed a lot of circumstances in Iowa this summer. As Kochel puts it, at this point "we're all kind of in the same boat." So Kochel stopped by Quayle's table to say hello. The former vice president, Kochel says, was visibly agitated. "He was very exasperated, like throwing up his hands. He said, 'Can you guys do anything to stop this?' I said, 'You mean Bush?' And he said, 'Yes. Can you do anything to stop it?'"


Kochel didn't answer Quayle directly. The answer was, probably not.




Tucker Carlson is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.