Here are two views of the weekend's Republican straw poll in Iowa. Texas Gov. George W. Bush and his lieutenants were calling it "a great festival of democracy." It's what you'd expect them to say. Bush won the thing with 7,418 votes, or 31 percent of the total.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who did not participate, called it "a sham and a joke." It's what you'd expect him to say. He did not participate -- and got 83 votes out of 24,549.
Both views are right. To have that many people show up for a midsummer political event 15 months before a presidential election is a democratic festival of sorts. And while technically meaningless, the event is having a meaningful effect, crippling some candidacies and enhancing others.
Yet voting required a $25 contribution -- and you probably thought we outlawed the poll tax decades ago -- to the Iowa Republican Party that could be paid by the candidates. The two top finishers, Bush and multimillionaire Steve Forbes (he won 21 percent with 4,921 votes), spent the most cash. "They used to call this walking around money," McCain told Fox News, recalling the Election Day cash spread around by big-city political machines.
Still, Elizabeth Dole, much dismissed by Republican political operatives (and, yes, certain pundits), reconstructed her candidacy with a third-place finish of 14 percent. Whatever this does for her presidential aspirations, it will revive talk of a Bush-Dole ticket.
Dole's showing is the one bad thing that happened to McCain this weekend. Had Dole imploded, he could have claimed to be the only mainstream alternative to Bush.
And there was a genuine, democratic contest in the churches and the union halls between Pat Buchanan and Gary Bauer for the hearts of the socially conservative, nationalist right. Bauer bested Buchanan for fourth place, 2,114 to 1,719.
Sure, it's ludicrous to attribute great meaning to such small numbers. Yet in 1992 and 1996, Buchanan parlayed relatively small numbers of votes into a monopoly claim on the role of populist outsider. With comparatively small numbers, Bauer could displace Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as the popular spokesman for America's religious conservatives. That's what he's really running for, and he's doing very well.
All who are religiously inclined should say a prayer for Lamar Alexander. His candidacy foundered on a sixth-place finish. He's spent six years seeking the presidency. In 1996, with just a few thousand more votes in Iowa and New Hampshire, he might have won the nomination. If hard work were enough to get you to the White House, Alexander would already be picking his Cabinet. But in this business, luck and timing matter much more.
Pray also for former vice president Dan Quayle, doomed by an eighth-place finish. He ran behind even radio talk show host Alan Keyes. Quayle should have followed the advice of friends and pursued the governorship of Indiana last year. Had he won, he could have rebuilt his political image.
Still, Quayle may have found himself a role in the 2000 campaign by declaring this weekend that he was proud of what he had done with his life before the age of 40. All of George W.'s opponents want people talking about what Bush did before he turned 40. You can bet Democrats Al Gore and Bill Bradley would cheer Quayle on in this work.
Now I must admit that my personal interest lies with McCain's view of the Iowa madness. I skipped the Ames straw poll to keep a family vacation commitment of long standing. I could not risk losing a straw poll among my kids. And bless them: By encouraging me not to go there, they saved me from the journalistic contortions involved in decrying the hyped quality of the event while simultaneously hyping it. For anyone wanting to argue that straw polls are bunk, you could hardly have a better scenario than one in which the two big money guys come out on top.
But if ideology doesn't necessarily beat money, it's still a potent force in Republican politics. Among them, the four candidates running unabashedly on the right (Bauer, Buchanan, Keyes and Quayle) won 5,850 votes -- nearly a quarter of the total. Add in Forbes's votes, and you have a conservative bloc that outnumbered Bush's supporters in Ames.
The crusaders of the Republican right can't take control of the party machinery, and they probably can't deprive Bush of the nomination. But they can cause trouble, and Steve Forbes -- sounding more conservative by the day -- plans to become the well-financed champion of their troublemaking.