Considering that he has spent only eight days in the state and that he has barely bothered to deviate from the short and simple stump speech he delivered on his announcement day, the 7,418 votes that Texas Gov. George W. Bush corralled to win the Iowa Republican straw poll last weekend speak well for his drawing power.
It was the combination of broad public appeal and skillful organization -- certainly not his oratory, which Pat Buchanan accurately described as "unexceptional" -- that won the day for Bush and cemented his status as the man to beat for the Republican presidential nomination. But it also opened up some scenarios that were not visible before Ames.
Karl Rove, Bush's Austin-based strategist, says that soon after Bush came into the race nine weeks ago and said he would try to win the totally unofficial but historically significant straw poll, the campaign paid for calls to identify likely Bush supporters in the universe of 100,000 Republicans who had voted in the 1996 Iowa delegate caucuses.
There were no radio or TV ads, no mass mailings -- just phone calls from volunteers urging Bush supporters to give up a Saturday afternoon and come to Ames for free food, entertainment and the $25-a-head tickets that would get them into the Hilton Coliseum at Iowa State University to vote.
It was the same offer other campaigns were making -- backed up in most cases by much more candidate time or spending, or, in the case of publisher Steve Forbes, by both. Forbes's investment paid off in a second-place finish, but because Bush had a much bigger pool of supporters to begin with, he got 50 percent more people to Ames than Forbes did -- and more than twice as many as third-place finisher Elizabeth Dole.
It was Dole's achievement in motivating scores of women and young people to take up her tickets that surprised party veterans. When the former Red Cross president and Cabinet member asked at a pre-vote rally which of her supporters were first-time straw poll participants, hundreds of hands went up. If Bush wins the nomination while Dole continues to demonstrate a significant drawing power among those constituencies, the view expressed by one longtime Iowa GOP power -- "That's our ticket" -- could certainly become a reality.
Dole's emergence is very bad news for Arizona Sen. John McCain, who skipped the straw poll and plans to duck the caucuses here at the end of January -- waiting to test his strength in early primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina. He now faces a real challenge in staying in the news while the campaigning is concentrated next January in Iowa. The caucuses could well turn into a huge fight between Forbes and Dole for second place, and the winner of that "alternative to Bush" banner could come into New Hampshire, which votes just eight days later, with momentum that could blow McCain away.
No one can predict whether Forbes or Dole will win the battle for second place, but he seems to have problems, while she enjoys bright prospects. Forbes's troops have bruised some feelings here already. Iowa Republican Chairman Kayne Robinson, who is neutral, told me that the loud balloon-popping that drowned out the first half of Forbes's speech in the Coliseum on Saturday was "payback" by other campaigns for "the barbs and harpoons" Forbes's staff have been launching.
Forbes has the added difficulty of having had both Gary Bauer and Pat Buchanan do well enough in the straw poll to keep him from locking up the Christian conservatives -- a vital constituency in the caucuses.
On the other hand, Dole lost one competitor for the establishment vote when former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander, who put up a strong battle against her husband in Iowa and New Hampshire in 1996, took his weak showing in the straw poll as a cue to give up the race. And another such contender, former vice president Dan Quayle, is barely holding on after finishing eighth in a field of nine.
It is a striking fact, as Alexander pointed out on "Meet the Press," that the four candidates who finished between Alexander and Bush in the straw poll -- Forbes, Dole, Bauer and Buchanan -- have never been elected to public office. This is an obvious advantage for Bush, especially in a year when, as Kayne Robinson says, "finding someone who can beat Al Gore or Bill Bradley is the most important thing to most Republicans."
Whether Bush is really that man is another question. He won three of every 10 votes among these Iowa activists. The remainder still have to be convinced.