Des Moines Register analysis: Dole's exit leaves gap for McCain
By DAVID YEPSEN
Des Moines Register
November 1, 1999
Web posted at: 5:48 p.m. EST (2248 GMT)
DES MOINES, Iowa (Des Moines Register) -- Elizabeth Dole's departure from the Republican presidential race leaves an opening for Arizona Senator John McCain in Iowa. There are some indications he's at least thinking about using it.
Texas Gov. George W. Bush is rapidly sewing up the nomination, and Dole's exit just added one more reason many experts are saying the GOP race is "over." In Iowa, she was one of Bush's strongest adversaries.
But Gov. Tom Vilsack taught everyone to be careful about saying a race is "over" three months before anyone votes. More and more people decide later and later what they're going to do in an election.
So far, McCain has blown off the Iowa caucuses, frustrating a number of top Iowa Republicans who like him and who think he"d wear well here. He's a hero. He's high-minded. He's crusading to clean up the way we finance campaigns. He's independent. All of those are traits that can appeal to rank-and-file Iowa Republicans.
Yet he opted to bypass Iowa. The bypass-Iowa strategy has never been successful. Ask President Ernest Hollings or President Al Gore. The political reality is the game starts here. Since the start of the caucuses, no one has won the nomination or the White House without first finishing among the top three contenders in Iowa.
McCain's dislike for Iowa is hard to understand. It may have to do with the bad experience he and some of his top aides had with Phil Gramm in the 1996 GOP caucuses. Gramm put a ton of effort into the state but finished fifth after he blew himself up in the Louisiana caucuses.
The lesson McCain and his operatives learned is that it doesn't pay to campaign here. But how to successfully bypass Iowa? Ethanol. McCain opposes subsidies and ethanol gives him an excuse for not making an effort here. He's convinced the political community that his opposition to ethanol is a killer in Iowa so he doesn't stand a chance.
But that analysis over-inflates the influence of agriculture on Iowa's political process. Iowa is no longer a farm state. According to Iowa State University, only 20 percent of Iowa's gross state product is tied to agriculture. Out of 2.8 million Iowans, fewer than 100,000 are farmers. Out of the 120,000 likely GOP caucus-goers, only about 4,000 are real farmers.
And that analysis also assumes GOP voters are single-issue voters. They're not. They care about a lot of other things. When asked by pollsters what the most important issues are, ethanol subsidies don't even register. Likely GOP caucus-goers here are just like Republican activists elsewhere. They care about restoring morality in government, cutting taxes, reducing regulations and improving education.
There are other narrow issues that would offset anything McCain might lose on the ethanol issue. For example, McCain has been a champion of low air fares. There are a lot more people in Iowa who care about cheap fares than who care about ethanol.
And Iowa voters have shown a willingness to support a candidate they disagree with on a specific issue if the whole package comes off as honest. A candidate who can look courageous for not pandering can attract support. That's McCain.
So far, McCain's strategy has worked. Political types have bought his rationale that he can't do well in Iowa so they don't require him to campaign here. He has put considerable effort into New Hampshire and South Carolina, and polls in both states show him doing well.
But here's what can happen to a candidate who bypasses Iowa: Bush could win Iowa big, coming out of the state with such a huge victory that it just bowls over any traps anyone has set up for him elsewhere. Such a win would affirm the notion the race is "over."
This is where Dole's departure hurts McCain. McCain needed Dole to trip up Bush in Iowa. She was poised to do that. She had probably the best organization of any candidate and attracted dozens of supporters, including young women who had never participated in politics. For all the bad-mouthing her campaign took at the national level, it was doing well in Iowa. Had Dole come close to or defeated Bush in Iowa, it would have made him look vulnerable in New Hampshire, where McCain could have taken advantage of the opening. Now, that won't happen.
What's likely now is a low-turnout affair that works to the advantage of Bush - who has a lot of the party regulars who always go to caucuses - or to the candidate who can rally the social conservatives.
Forbes and Bauer are working to shore up support with social conservatives. If either can become a rallying point, then they can do well and be the candidate to get the big bounce into New Hampshire.
Dole's departure should be forcing a reconsideration of the bypass-Iowa strategy inside the McCain camp. There are signs it is. Top Iowa Republicans who had been with Dole have been told by McCain operatives to "keep their powder dry" and not endorse Bush too quickly. Former Iowa GOP chairman Brian Kennedy, who works for McCain and who knows Iowa's nooks and crannies well, has reportedly been calling around asking what sort of staff might be available for hire.
Last week, McCain said he's coming to Iowa in November for a book tour. He has consistently said he wants to compete for votes in Iowa and has agreed to participate in the Register's forum Jan. 15.
The best indication there's an opening for McCain in Iowa is in the polls. Both the straw poll and public-opinion polls show Bush with a large lead over any challenger, although not a conclusive one. For example, in the last poll of caucus-goers, taken for KCCI-TV in Des Moines, Bush got 38 percent of the vote. Forbes had 17 percent, Dole got 13 percent, Gary Bauer had 9 percent. Pat Buchanan and Alan Keyes each got 5 percent. Orrin Hatch and McCain captured 1 percent each and 11 percent were undecided. The survey had a large 6 percent margin of error.
That means Bush has better than a 2-1 lead over his nearest competitor. It's also true that 62 percent of Iowa GOP caucus-goers want someone else. He's the so-called front-runner, yet almost two-thirds of likely caucus-goers find him lacking.
Those folks in that 62 percent category provide the potential for the McCain candidacy in Iowa. Later this fall, he could swoop into Iowa, do a big tour, put up some TV ads and get himself into the game late by trying to rally the non-Bush Republicans. Many good activists were left homeless by the departures of Dole, Lamar Alexander and Dan Quayle. Expectations would be low for him so he wouldn't have to beat Bush in Iowa to get "the bounce," but he could put together a late second-place finish.
Admittedly, it's high risk. Conventional wisdom says a candidate has to spend days in Iowa building a strong organization to turn out supporters. But if anything, John McCain is a risk-taker, and no one gets to the White House without taking risks.
This report provided by Des Moines Register.com