IT GETS HARDER and harder to make the case that the qualities measured by the presidential nominating process have a lot to do with the responsibilities of being president. The prodigious amounts of money and effort spent on -- and attention paid to -- the Republican "straw poll" Saturday in Iowa is the latest case in point. This was a test of how many people a candidate could persuade to take an all-expenses-paid day off to be bused to a kind of carnival in Ames at which, somewhat incidentally after being handsomely fed and entertained, they would cast a vote for the nominee of their choice, who had even bought their ballot.
If partly that can be said to be a measure of candidate appeal and organizational strength; mostly it was a measure of how much support a candidate could afford. The journalism was full of footnotes about how little could safely be read into the results that the journalism itself, by default, helped inflate. Texas Gov. George W. Bush "won" the event, but more than two-thirds of the participants voted for others -- hardly a knockout blow. Magazine publisher Steve Forbes came in second with about a fifth of the vote, but had to spend $2 million to do it -- $400 a straw vote. And so on down the line.
The problem in part is that the increasingly elaborate and costly race for the nomination begins, we suppose of necessity, so long before the first real votes are cast. Months pass in which the only numeric measures of success or the lack are money raised and polling samples. Mr. Bush is deemed to be ahead in part because he has raised about $40 million, far more than any rival in either party. The ability to raise money is said to be an indicator of support, and so it is, but within a fairly narrow slice of the electorate. No one at this stage can claim to know in any detail how Mr. Bush might deal with most of the problems he would confront as president, because he hasn't chosen yet to say. Indeed, he is being supported in part by people -- we think of some members of Congress -- from whose records he seeks elliptically to distance himself. They're for him because they think he can win. Some of his rivals, meanwhile, have the opposite problem -- not that too little is known about their views, but too much for them to be viable candidates. You wonder if this bunch is really the best the Republican party can do; that's the ultimate question that dogs the nominating process.
It occurs on the Democratic side as well. Vice President Gore is the front-runner, partly because his office makes him the "natural" successor to the job and partly because of his own fund-raising prowess, not unrelated to his office. Mr. Gore has only one rival, former senator Bill Bradley, even though many Democrats fear -- and say privately -- that Mr. Gore may not be their party's best standard-bearer. Is that all or the best the Democrats can do?
Money is the great winnower in all this, the more so because of the bunching of the primary process next year. Candidates will have to be able to compete in many costly early states at once. Defenders say that candidates ought to have to raise the money on which the delivery of their messages depends, that it's a healthy form of competition, offers proof of viability, shows the democracy to be in vigorous condition in that people are willing to give, etc. All true up to a point. But access to money ought not be the arbiter it has become. It narrows the country's choices to have the ante as high as it is today. That seems to us one of the inescapable lessons of the campaigns for the nominations thus far.