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The Iowa straw poll never ceases to surprise

August 11, 1999
Web posted at: 11:09 a.m. EDT (1509 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Texas Gov. George W. Bush may be hoping for a big win in Saturday's Iowa straw poll, but the front-runner in the race for the GOP presidential nomination will be fighting against history in Ames.

In the three previous Iowa GOP straw polls, front-runners haven't fared well. The only Republican leader to ever come close to winning the poll was Sen. Bob Dole, who managed to pull out a disappointing tie for first with Sen. Phil Gramm in 1995's contest.

However, the consolation prize for any candidate who doesn't meet analyst expectations in Iowa may be that the straw poll has never accurately predicted results of the Republican nominating process.

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The Republican Party in Iowa first held the straw poll in 1979. The event, planned as a fund-raising dinner to help repay state party debt, featured nine candidates, including the eventual poll winner, George Bush.

Bush received 36 percent of the 1,454 votes cast, easily defeating then-front-runner Ronald Reagan by 25 percentage points. Reagan did not attend the event, claiming it promoted conflict within the party.

While Bush's 1980 campaign eventually succumbed to Reagan, eight years later when Bush returned to Iowa for the 1987 straw poll, he was the front-runner shocked by a dark horse.

This time is was Pat Robertson's turn to make the establishment sit up and take notice. The Christian broadcaster mobilized supporters who dominated the audience of 5,700.

"The Robertson juggernaut was the whole news out of the event, and in fact that put Pat on the radar screen as a serious contender for president," says political analyst Charlie Black.

Not only was Robertson on the radar screen -- so was a powerful new force in Republican politics, the Christian Right.

The event, dubbed the "Cavalcade of Stars," also forced Bush to take notice. The then-vice president, who was expected to easily win the poll, finished in third place behind Robertson and Dole.

Bush again would finish behind both Dole and Robertson in Iowa's 1988 caucus, but eventually captured the Republican nomination and the presidency that year.

While Robertson's success and Bush's disappointment made news with the more than 200 media personnel covering the straw poll, the real winner that year was the Iowa Republican Party.

In 1987 the "Cavalcade of Stars," dropped the $50-a-plate dinner served in 1979 and instead charged a $25 admission fee, making the straw poll a financial success.

By the time "Caucus Kickoff '96" took place in 1995, the Iowa Republican Party had opened the voting to anyone, not just Iowans, willing to pay the fee. All 10 GOP candidates were ready to participate in the event, which drew about 10,600 straw poll voters and netted the state party $350,000.

But as it had to both previous frontrunners, the Iowa straw poll proved to be a bump in the road for 1996's GOP favorite.

"As I remember the straw vote, we refer to it as a wake-up call for the campaign. Our guard was let down. Our organizational efforts were not at 100 percent as they should have been," said Dole's 1996 campaign manager, Scott Reed. "It was a long ride home that night in the car, but it was a good experience in that it caused us to sharpen ourselves a little in Iowa, which ultimately we went on and won the caucus, which is what really matters."

Dole and Gramm tied in 1995 with 2,582 votes, followed by Pat Buchanan with 1,922 supporters.

As they had in 1987, conservatives ruled the day. During the candidates' 12-minute speeches, Buchanan and Gramm received enthusiastic support, while Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania was booed for his support of abortion rights.

Dole won the Iowa caucus in 1996 and Gramm finished a dismal fifth. But Gramm's tactics may be a lesson for the candidates hoping to upset the favorite in 1999.

"Gramm campaigned in the state very hard, very actively for months and months, had a very efficient organization for identifying supporters, a good local set of county organizations that followed up with people, tried to get them committed not just to support Gramm but to spend time volunteering, and therefore was able to get a relatively high percentage of his people to commit the whole day to go to Ames and support him," Black said.

So with history against the front-runner and candidates such Lamar Alexander and Steve Forbes having spent much more time visiting Iowa than the Texas governor, a Bush victory may prove another historical lesson about politics: It's all about the money.

CNN's Jane Caplan contributed to this report.

IOWA STRAW POLL

The Iowa straw poll never ceases to surprise (8-11-99)

Straw poll attracts horde of journalists (8-11-99)

Candidates take swipes at Bush (8-11-99)

GOP presidential hopefuls take aim at Iowa (8-9-99)


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