Iowa Provides Big Early Test
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 13, 1999; Page A1
AMES, Iowa, Aug. 12 – Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch is counting on the golden voice of Vic Damone to draw people to his tent. Elizabeth Dole hopes her younger sorority sisters will deliver the "Tri Delt" vote. Patrick J. Buchanan has told Teamsters you don't have to be a Republican to vote here on Saturday. And Dee Stewart of the Iowa Republican Party has personally tested 20 indelible inks.
What they are all pointing toward is the state's Republican straw poll that will test the organizational strength of the GOP presidential candidates as voters from around Iowa travel here to cast their ballots. The event has generated the kind of intensive campaigning never before seen this early in a presidential election.
All of the Republican candidates are hoping to surprise what Buchanan dubs "the gold dust twins," Texas Gov. George W. Bush and magazine publisher Steve Forbes, the candidates who have invested most heavily in winning the straw poll.
The poll has no official standing in the nominating process and Saturday's events will be as much carnival as serious politics. The candidates will use country singers, sports celebrities and virtually every type of barbecue to woo their supporters. And the Iowa Republican Party, which will charge attendees $25 a head, will gross nearly $500,000 from ticket sales, hospitality tents and even space on the scoreboard inside the Hilton Coliseum at Iowa State University, where the voting takes place.
The candidates will be spending collectively millions of dollars, and critics have complained that the once tiny event has been blown far out of proportion this year. The Des Moines Register decried "the circus in Ames" in an editorial this week. Iowa Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R) said, "Money impresses Iowans less than it does leaders nationally. They [the candidates] could have done as well with much less spending."
But with the nominating process effectively reduced to five or six weeks next winter, Saturday's straw poll represents the only opportunity this year for the candidates to demonstrate where they fit in the large field.
Bush's huge lead in Iowa and national polls make him the overwhelming favorite to win here, even though he has spent less time in the state than anyone else.
Forbes, with a virtually unlimited budget, hopes to use the event to show that the GOP nomination is effectively a two-person race between him and the Texas governor. Dole and Gary Bauer hope the straw poll will boost their candidacies by demonstrating their appeal to particular constituencies; for Dole, women, and for Bauer, Christian conservatives.
But for the handful of other candidates, such as former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander and former vice president Dan Quayle, the Ames contest may prove to be a test of political survivability.
With roughly 500 reporters in attendance, the leaders of the Iowa Republican Party are working hard to make the straw poll look like a serious event. They have enlisted state auditor Richard Johnson to oversee the counting of what could be 15,000 votes.
Unlike past straw polls, Saturday's contest will be open only to Iowa residents. And GOP leaders have gone to elaborate lengths to prevent people from voting more than once, as reportedly has happened. Stewart, the party's executive director, has become perhaps the country's leading expert on indelible ink, which will be applied to the hand of everyone who votes Saturday.
Party Chairman Kayne Robinson joked that he "originally proposed ear tags like they put on cattle" to prevent voter fraud, but said, "Nobody was willing to go along."
But Robinson indignantly denied reports that he would have bathroom monitors making sure no one attempted to scrub off the marker. "We're not assigning anyone to the bathrooms," he said. "People could go in the stalls and dip their hands in the toilet. We're not going to follow them there."
Robinson said despite the circus atmosphere at the straw poll, the winner of past Iowa caucuses, which open the nominating process in February, has always been among the top three finishers in the straw vote, and so has the eventual nominee.
The importance of this year's contest increased markedly when Bush declared on his first visit to the state in June that he would not only participate but would also fight to win it. Although he will have spent only eight days in Iowa by the time of the straw poll, he has mounted a full-scale effort to turn out his supporters.
Bush's campaign chairman in Iowa, Luke Roth, set a target of attracting 5,000 votes for Bush on Saturday, double what any previous candidate has achieved. But the Bush campaign contests the claim of his rivals that the governor told a private meeting of supporters that he hoped to win 50 percent of the vote.
Eric Woolson, Bush's Iowa press secretary, conceded they would like to better the previous high-water mark of 36 percent, set by Bush's father in 1979. Gov. Bush, whose campaign raised about $37 million as of June 30, will spend about $750,000 on the straw vote.
Like all the other candidates, Bush is promising to hand a $25 admission ticket to anyone who shows up at his hospitality tent. His afternoon party there will feature country singer Tracy Byrd, former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, San Antonio Spurs star Sean Elliott and Johnny Morris, the world champion bass fisherman. Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell will lead a delegation of motorcyclists for Bush that will include Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson.
Bush won the party's auction for the prime tent space closest to the coliseum with a bid of $43,500. But the self-financed Forbes has been, if anything, even more lavish in his spending. Campaign manager Bill Dal Col said Forbes will spend "less than $2 million" on the straw poll, but refused to be more specific.
Forbes has spent roughly $1 million since June on television ads in Iowa, and has traveled about 6,000 miles in elaborately equipped buses to stir up support for his candidacy. Like Bush, his campaign has been using paid phone banks to identify voters and has chartered about 100 buses to bring people to Ames on Saturday. There his supporters will hear singers Ronnie Milsap and Debbie Boone, and their hospitality bag will include a Forbes T-shirt and cap and a copy of the candidate's new book, "A Rebirth of Freedom."
Dal Col said Forbes targeted the straw poll early in the year as the place to establish himself as the principal alternative to Bush. "The sooner you get it to a one-on-one race -- Forbes versus Bush -- the better it will be for us," he said.
Most Republicans here say Dole and Bauer are battling for what could be the psychologically critical third spot. Dole has drawn big crowds here, predominantly women, but has run a lower-budget campaign than Bush or Forbes. Ari Fleischer, Dole's spokesman, said up to half the people who have attended Dole's events are "new people" to the caucus process "and we don't know if they will turn out for this kind of event."
Dole's strategy is to mobilize sorority and fraternity members in Iowa and Fleischer noted that Dole's sorority, Delta Delta Delta, will be holding a convention in Ames this weekend.
Bauer, by all accounts, has done the best job of attracting the support of religious conservatives. "The buzz I'm hearing is that I'm going to do better than expected," Bauer said. "But I have to confess to you I can't get my arms around it. I don't know how to measure it."
Bauer is competing for the support of religious conservatives with Buchanan, Quayle, Hatch, former diplomat Alan Keyes and even Forbes. But his campaign got an early boost here when he recruited two top organizers among the religious conservative movement, Marlys Popma, who was with Texas Sen. Phil Gramm in 1996, and Loras Schulte, who worked for Buchanan four years ago.
Buchanan finished third in the 1995 straw poll but got a late start this year. He told a small rally with anti-NAFTA Teamsters today, "We might have a surprise for the wealthy candidates."
Alexander, who finished fourth in the straw poll, is aiming for third this time, according to campaign manager Brian Kennedy, a former Iowa GOP chairman. With former governor Terry Branstad backing him, Alexander has worked the state more diligently than anyone else and had high hopes that it would establish him as a serious contender for the nomination. But Kennedy conceded that Bush and Dole have taken away the suburban vote that was Alexander's principal constituency four years ago, and the former Tennessee governor has been touring small, rural counties, hoping to find a base of support there.
Quayle counted on his longtime support from Christian conservatives, who make up a significant portion of the party activists in Iowa, but has a smaller organization than Bauer. His manager, Kyle McSlarrow, said, "We budgeted $50,000 for the straw vote and we're not going over it."
In addition to these candidates, the ballot in Ames will include Arizona Sen. John McCain, who is not competing this weekend, and two Republicans who have dropped out of the GOP race, Ohio Rep. John R. Kasich and New Hampshire Sen. Robert C. Smith, a total of 12 names.
Grassley, who is neutral in the presidential race, said, "After the straw vote, there may be only five candidates left to consider. . . . Anyone who falls into single digits is not going to get much national attention."
© 1999 The Washington Post Company