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The GOP presidential race after Ames

By Stuart Rothenberg

August 17, 1999
Web posted at: 10:08 a.m. EDT (1408 GMT)

Texas Gov. George Bush's 10-point, 2,500-vote victory over second-place finisher Steve Forbes reinforces the view that he is the clear front- runner and favorite to win the nomination. His 7,418 votes easily shattered the previous record of 2,582 votes by the 1995 co-winners, Bob Dole and Phil Gramm.

But the governor's showing -- a less than overwhelming 31 percent -- demonstrates that he still is in a battle to win the GOP nomination. Forbes and Dole will be emboldened by their showings. Forbes is emerging as the conservative alternative to Bush, and Dole remains a factor with her solid third place finish.

Some Republicans, particularly those loyal to Forbes, are insisting that Bush's showing was far below expectations and, therefore, a blow to the governor's campaign. But history and logic argue otherwise.

There have been three previous Iowa straw polls, though the rules and circumstances in all three have been different. The 1979 event didn't include the front runner, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush won the poll with just under 1,500 votes (or about 36% of the total cast). In 1987, Pat Robertson beat a sitting vice president (George Bush) and a senator from a neighboring state (Bob Dole of Kansas). Eight years later, Sen. Dole, who was expected to win easily, tied for the lead with Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas.

In other words, front runners have had problems in the straw poll, almost certainly because the event places a premium on organization and intensity of candidate support (which in turn, is frequently motivated by the candidates' support for particular "hot button" issues), not mere name recognition.

Back in the spring, every Republican candidate wanted Bush in the straw poll, figuring that he hadn't spent enough time organizing or appearing in the state, and that his relatively moderate style (and broad appeal) wouldn't translate well to the low turnout straw poll.

Considering the amount of time candidates like Alexander and Bauer had spent in the state, the amount of money that Forbes spent, and the exposure that Buchanan, Keyes and Alexander had gained by participating in previous Iowa straw polls and caucuses, Bush was not in an overwhelmingly strong position going into this year's Ames event.

The Texas governor's 31 percent showing fell below Robertson's 34 percent showing in 1987, but significantly above Bob Dole's and Grams's 24 percent co-victories in 1995. Given the size of this year's Straw Vote field - and the money and energy put in by other candidates - Bush's showing was credible. Not overwhelming, but not weak, either.

Forbes's supporters respond that since Bush won 31 percent of those attending this year's event in Ames, he was rejected by almost 69 percent of the participants. More importantly, the Bush campaign briefly talked about aiming for the 50 percent mark, creating an expectation against which his showing must be measured.

But if you are going to point to the people who rejected Bush, you'd also have to point out that Forbes was rejected by just under 80 percent of straw poll participants, Dole was rejected by almost 86 percent, and fourth-place finisher Gary Bauer was rejected by over 91 percent.

As for the 50 percent Bush target, that figure didn't strike most people (or most reporters) as realistic. And yet, it wasn't all that far off the mark in at least one respect. Bush attracted 7,418 votes at the Ames event, and that would have been close to 50 percent if the total number of participants had ranged between 12,000 and 15,000 straw poll voters, as many initially expected.

Okay, now the straw poll is history. Now what?

One of the interesting questions is what fourth place finisher Gary Bauer will do. While all of the Republican hopefuls who remain in the race after Ames will naturally focus their attention on the front runner, the former Reagan Administration official may well have to go after Forbes.

If Bauer's performance in Ames is any indication, he's painted himself into a corner, relying almost totally on pro-life, Christian Right activists. If Forbes succeeds in becoming Bush's opponent on the right, Bauer becomes irrelevant. The former head of the Family Research Council can't allow that to happen, so it will be interesting to see whether Bauer seeks to paint Forbes as a rich kid from the establishment who has changed his views over the last four years for political reasons.

Forbes would prefer to have Bauer, Buchanan and the other conservatives out of the race as soon as possible. But Forbes can't criticize other conservatives without risking alienating their supporters, and his sights will surely be set on the Texas governor. It will be interesting to see how soon his attacks on Bush become more frequent and more pointed.

Mrs. Dole will also have to figure out what to do next. She insists that she doesn't want to be just a "women's candidate," but her appeal seems to rest largely on her gender. On one hand, she seems unlikely to overtake Bush pursuing her existing campaign plan. But as long as she is in the race, she squeezes Bush from the center at the same time that Forbes and Bauer are squeezing him from the right.

Bush insiders insist that the governor's victory in the straw poll ratifies the correctness of their message and strategy, so I doubt that we'll see much change out of Bush. But he still needs to walk a tight rope on issues - including taxes, abortion and school choice - and he'll undoubtedly have to deal with the criticism from opponents and some journalists that he's a lightweight who's not up to the job of being president of the United States.

Buchanan is faced with a stark choice: leave the GOP for a third party presidential effort, or stay with the Republicans knowing that he was no better than conservatives' third choice in Ames. His straw poll share dropped from 1995 to 1999, suggesting that the former Reagan speechwriter has nowhere else to go but down nationally.

Buchanan's supporters during the straw poll seemed to be most energized by the former television host's message of economic nationalism, not by his social issue conservatism. That limits his appeal within the GOP (since many economic nationalists are either Democrats or followers of Ross Perot), giving him further reason to consider an exit from the Republican race, as well as from the Republican Party.

The only Republican not to participate in Ames, Sen. John McCain, is neither entirely better nor worse off after Ames. Dole's credible showing means that three centrist contenders remain in the race, but that probably doesn't change McCain's overall strategy. The Arizona senator is still hoping to "hang around" in the race to take any advantage of a Bush implosion.

Dan Quayle's suggestion that his showing in Ames doesn't matter and that he is preparing for the "real" test in the caucuses is preposterous. The longer he stays in the race, the more likely he is to embarrass himself.

In a sense, the Ames straw poll didn't change very much. We thought Bush was the front runner, and he finished first. We thought Forbes would emerge as the serious conservative challenger, and Iowa suggests that that's what is happening. Dole got a boost, and Bauer probably got enough oxygen to stay active. McCain, of course, ducked the fight. Everyone else is now largely irrelevant.

On to the caucuses.


ROTHENBERG

Analysis: Lessons from Election 1999 (11-8-99)

The CNN/WMUR Town Hall Meetings at Dartmouth (10-29-99)

Spotlight on key races in 2000 (10-14-99)

The races for governor in 1999 (10-6-99)

The GOP presidential race after Ames (8-17-99)

Death of a congressman gives GOP chance to pick up House seat in California (8-6-99)

Democrats eye GOP House seats in North Carolina, Washington (7-21-99)

Best chance of unseating Democratic House incumbent may be in Connecticut (7-8-99)

Fierce Democratic Senate primaries expected in New Jersey and Rhode Island (6-22-99)

GOP has a chance to pick up Democratic Pennsylvania House seat (6-9-99)

Rep. Capps will have to fight for evenly split district (5-24-99)

Rep. Rogan undecided on re-electon bid, but GOP seat at risk either way (5-12-99)

Democrats look for candidate to beat Sen. Grams (4-29-99)

Hot race for Livingston's Louisiana House seat (4-13-99)

DeWine's re-election chances stronger with no declared Democratic challenger (3-29-99)

Mack's retirement means competitive race for Senate in Florida (3-16-99)

Mississippi's gov. race may determine bragging rights for Election '99 (2-25-99)

Impeachment votes could be a factor in some Senate races next year (2-12-99)

Open or closed? The politics of the final debate (2-8-99)

Challengers look to Chenoweth to honor term-limit pledge (1-26-99)

The state of Bill Clinton's State of the Union (1-20-99)

N.Y. Senate race could be a wild one (1-13-99)

More Rothenberg reports



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Tuesday, August 17, 1999

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