A lot of fun and little of the foregone in Iowa
By Bruce Morton
August 19, 1999
This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.
WASHINGTON (CNN) - The Iowa caucuses used to begin the thinning-out process, reducing the field from however many presidential candidates there were to maybe three or four.
"The winnowing has begun, and I've been winnowed in," as Fred Harris, then a Democratic senator from Oklahoma running for president in 1976, ungrammatically put it.
This year, partly because everything else is so early in the 2000 presidential race (including primaries), the thinning-out process among Republicans is beginning early, too: with Iowa's summer straw vote, not the winter caucuses.
The straw poll, really just a mock election and Republican fund-raiser, used to be just summer fun. But this year, Republican politicians and their party appear to be taking its results seriously.
Bob Dole noted correctly (before watching his wife place third) that no straw poll winner has ever won the White House. (He knows this personally; he and Texas Sen. Phil Gramm tied for first in 1995.)
But this year, the candidates began spending significant amounts of time and money on the straw vote, and reporters followed, as we usually do.
You can argue that it's a silly, money-driven event. The various campaigns offer a free bus ride, a free $25 ticket, free food and free entertainment in exchange for a vote.
Or you can argue that nearly 24,000 people voted, about 25 percent as many as went to the Iowa caucuses in 1996 -- and say that's a serious sample.
Say both things are true. What did we learn?
Rich guys finish first
First, the candidate who was "supposed" to win did.
Texas Gov. George W. Bush won by 10 points, a big enough margin to silence most critics. A smaller margin would have had people talking about lowered expectations, an unexpectedly close finish by whoever was second and so on.
Bush won without taking a lot of stands on issues and without spending much time in the state beforehand.
Steve Forbes finished second, 21 percent to Bush's 31 percent; he can claim respectability.
Like Bush, he can claim financial independence from the spending constraints of federal matching funds; both candidates outspent their competitors in Iowa.
All together now
Some analysts had thought two alternatives to Bush might start to emerge: one among mainstream Republicans such as Elizabeth Dole and John McCain, the other among religious conservatives such as Gary Bauer. That happened. Sort of.
Dole, with 14 percent, finished third and remains in the mainstream GOP race. She also brought a lot of new people into the process.
Is she bad news for McCain, who skipped the straw vote?
"I frankly think he looks better today than he would have looked if he was contesting that vote in Iowa, because I'm not sure he would have done very well," said Doug Bailey of The Hotline, an online political newsletter.
So Dole and, pending New Hampshire's primary next winter, McCain are alive in the mainstream.
The Christian right?
Gary Bauer finished fourth and can claim some success; Bauer beat Pat Buchanan, who did worse than four years ago.
The question for Bauer may be whether the religious right comes to him or to Forbes, who talked flat tax last time but talks social issues a lot this time.
On one level or another, then, Dole and McCain, Forbes and Bauer are still in it.
Buchanan, wounded, is marginal, but he runs a guerrilla, low-budget campaign -- appearing at other peoples' events, using talk radio and so on -- and can keep on if he wants to.
Of the others, Lamar Alexander has already withdrawn. Former Vice President Dan Quayle has not, but his campaign is considered to be in major trouble, with professional staffers now only in Iowa and New Hampshire -- and others defecting to McCain. Quayle, in eighth place, finished behind perennial candidate Alan Keyes (commonly considered no threat to anyone).
Late entry Orrin Hatch, respected senator of Utah, was last.
A party with a purpose?
So, based on the straw poll, the field is narrowed, more or less, to five.
But George W. remains the front-runner. The race is widely considered his to lose.
"He has to stumble and fall if someone else is going to be nominated," Bailey said.
We may not have needed Iowa's summer fun to tell us that.
Bauer for President 2000
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