When George W. Bush finished first in a 10-candidate field with 31 percent of the vote in Saturday's straw vote here, did opposition from seven out of 10 participating Iowans mean his bandwagon has stalled? On the contrary, the governor of Texas survived what his strategists had considered the first scary test of his presidential candidacy.

Bush declared victory as soon as the votes were counted, claiming incorrectly that "every record has been shattered" at this event (his vote total was the highest ever, but not his percentage). In a format in which a resident of the state as young as 16 1/2 can vote, this straw vote can wound a front-runner, as it did Robert J. Dole in 1995. Bush wanted to get out of Ames with his front-runner's status intact, and he did.

Many of the also-rans who managed only single-digit percentages here -- Gary Bauer, Pat Buchanan, Alan Keyes and even Lamar Alexander -- far surpassed Bush in oratory Saturday evening. Nevertheless, the governor has honed his platform skills sufficiently since his flop at a 1997 Midwestern Republican conference in Indianapolis so that he did not embarrass himself. Spending less time in the state than most opponents and not half as much money as runner-up Steve Forbes, Bush survived.

Survival in Iowa was all that Bush strategist Karl Rove wanted. Long ago, he and others in the governor's high command briefly pondered the bad idea of avoiding this dangerous state entirely. Instead, with balloting at the equally hazardous Florida pseudo-convention late this year eliminated in connivance with Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the next test will not come until early 2000, in the actual Iowa caucuses. In the interim, he will avoid candidate cattle shows and minimize intraparty debates. Far more than an insignificant first step on the long road to the Philadelphia convention, the Iowa straw vote instead offered one of the few chances for Bush's opponents to trip him.

The Iowa straw vote, in fact, demonstrates just how difficult that will be. His campaign hastily assembled an organization effective enough to get voters to the polls, but his real strength here, as elsewhere, is Republican thirst for a winner after two terms of Bill Clinton. One officially neutral party leader here put it this way: "Ordinary Republicans can see George W. on Jan. 20, 2001, taking the oath of office. They like Steve Forbes but just can't visualize him or anybody other than Bush taking that oath."

This sentiment bred caution and frustration among Bush's rivals. In the speeches to more than 15,000 packed into Iowa State University's field house, Keyes, Bauer, Alexander and Dan Quayle all complained about Bush's money-raising machine, and Forbes claimed nobody knows exactly where the Texan stands on the issues. But no opponent mentioned Bush by name, and Buchanan -- expected to assault the front-runner -- did not refer to him even indirectly.

The underlying truth is that belief in Bush as a winner has risen above ancient Iowa feuds between the followers of conservative Sen. Charles Grassley and the moderates who trace their lineage to former governor Robert Ray and, ironically, George Bush Sr. Iowa Republican State Chairman Kayne Robinson, heir apparent to Charlton Heston as president of the National Rifle Association, is an old Grassleyite who battled against the elder Bush in 1988. But he was accused by Buchanan's sister and campaign manager, Bay Buchanan, of trying to rig this year's results in the younger Bush's favor.

In-your-face disputes between Robinson and the Buchanan camp leading up to the straw vote were not taken lightly by party leaders here, because the possibility of Buchanan's seeking the Reform Party nomination is a Republican nightmare. Buchanan told me weeks ago that the Grim Reaper would be waiting at the door at Iowa State Aug. 14 for the losers. With only 7 percent of the vote, he fits that category and clearly is considering a bolt from the GOP.

As they appeared side-by-side on the stage here Saturday night, Bush expressed to Buchanan the hope that he would stay in the party. Buchanan replied, "I appreciate the thought." How much he really appreciated it could ultimately be as important to Bush as surviving in Ames.