Dole: A Fragile Front-runner

[Bob Dole]DES MOINES, Iowa (Feb. 12) -- As expected, Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole (R-Kan.) won the Iowa caucuses, but just barely. The strong showings of conservative commentator Pat Buchanan and former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander were the night's big surprises, along with the apparent implosion of multimillionaire Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes and his once high-flying campaign. Those results promise to make it a heated four-way contest for the GOP nomination going into New Hampshire.

Dole, who heads into the Granite State as a fragile front-runner, showed he could take Forbes' hammering in TV ads and emerge with a victory, even if it was narrower than he would have liked. Dole's 26 percent showing was less than his 37 percent victory in 1988.

The strong showings of Buchanan (23 percent) and Alexander (18 percent), who finished second and third, proved Dole has not dispelled doubts that the 72-year-old Kansas senator can defeat a suddenly revived and upbeat President Bill Clinton.

Forbes' disappointing showing represented a stinging rebuke by voters unimpressed with his $2-million-plus TV ad blitz, a new feature in Iowa's traditionally homespun campaigns. Heavy spending could still help him in New Hampshire, where TV spots count for more.

Despite his fourth-place finish, he vowed to stay in the race. "I think it's remarkable what we've put together in a short time," Forbes said. "Just remember where we were 18 weeks ago."

For Dole, a win was still a win, after polling suggested his campaign was in free fall following his lackluster response to Clinton's State of the Union speech in late January. For Iowans, Dole was a familiar, comfortable face who got them a farm bill earlier this month and who supports ethanol subsidies.

"Thank you, Iowa," Dole told his supporters. "We withstood a barrage of millions and millions of dollars of negative advertising and we came out on top." Dole said his goal was to return "conservative common sense" to the White House.

Dole did well among older voters, capturing 41 percent of the senior vote. However, among those who were looking for a candidate who could beat Clinton, 48 percent chose Alexander and only 32 percent picked Dole.

Dole aides were happy about Buchanan's showing, because they do not believe the hard-right conservative can win the nomination. Buchanan was able to capitalize on the strength of Christian conservatives, who made up one-third of caucus-goers, and tap into voters' uneasiness about the globalization of the economy and illegal immigration. Buchanan won 41 percent of the Christian conservative vote, beating Dole by 2-1 margin. Among non-religious conservatives, Dole won 30 percent and Alexander 24 percent.

[Buchanan]Buchanan called it "a victory for...a new conservatism that will stand up beside American working men and women." Bay Buchanan, Buchanan's sister and campaign manager, said they were thrilled with the close finish. "We're right on his (Dole's) backside," she said. "People are coming toward Pat Buchanan. The pundits don't want to believe it. They're not talking to America."

Alexander's success suggested he may have benefited from the backlash against Forbes' negative TV campaign. Alexander tried to portray himself as the high-road candidate who eschewed, at least during the endgame, slashing TV ads, as he tried to prove himself the man with the best chance to defeat Clinton in the fall.

"Let the future begin," Alexander told an election-night rally, a clear suggestion Dole's time has passed. Dole is the oldest candidate in the field.

[Alexander]"I felt in the last few days a big surge," Alexander said. "We tried to run a grass-roots, positive campaign about ideas and the future. In the polls that everybody always reads, I was an asterisk. Iowans really got turned off about the negative campaigning."

The early results left Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) so far out of contention that there were doubts that he would go on to New Hampshire's primary next week. His advisers were divided, but analyst Ed Rollins rendered the verdict: "He's dead." Gramm's campaign said he would continue and would unveil a new strategy.

In the New Hampshire primary, issues that resonate with voters may be different. While social issues played a big role in the Iowa outcome, economic concerns cut more deeply in the Granite State.

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